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Warteg, Indonesia`s equivalent of American soup kitchens

11th December 2010 | 2.922 Views
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Warteg is short for "warung Tegal," roughly "Tegal eating place" as the operators are people from Tegal, Central Java, and there are at least 26,900 wartegs in Jakarta scattered all over the city.

Wartegs got popularity since the 1970`s when waves of urbanization took a shape in this capital city of Indonesia. Wartegs are unfailingly the Indonesian equivalent to American soup kitchens, bread lines or meal centers where the hungry and marginalized may have meals on much discounted prices or mostly for free.

The concept of soup kitchens emerged in the U.S. during the Great Depression at the end of 1920?s. Inventor Benjamin Thompson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, is said to have invented the soup kitchen, an institution giving attention to the poor by means of dispensing charity at poor neighborhoods.

In the same spirit, wartegs in Jakarta and major cities of Indonesia have been functioning the same way as their American equivalents. Tricycle drivers, street peddlers, beggars and those segments of the society in these classes, flock to wartegs for their breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Meals offered are the basics such as steamed rice, deep fried soybean cakes or tofu, salted fish and stir fried assorted of vegetables. A dish of rice, a slice of fried soybean cake, some sauted vegetable on top priced at around 5,000-7,000 rupiahs (0.4-0.8 cents US dollar), while the ever present "sambal" (condiment made of chilies and shrimp paste) is provided free of charge.

In this way, wartegs have conceivably been playing a very strategic role in fending off the pressure of poverty for more than 40 years, right after the days of living dangerously in the early 1970`s, to the chaotic days in 1998-1999 after the resignation of President Soeharto and those tumultuous democratizing days now.

It seems that there could be no more threatening news to the poorer segments of the society than the reports circulating earlier this month saying that the Jakarta municipal government will soon impose a 10 percent tax on every meal bought at a warteg.

The debate over the tax on wartegs has turned political with legislators voicing their quick criticism to Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo for what they called an injustice against small businesses. Members of the House of Representatives have condemned the plan, saying it would burden small-business owners who were already struggling with the increasing prices of basic necessities.

"I don`t understand this policy. Governor Bowo is pandering to the rich and ignoring the poor," said National Mandate Party (PAN) legislator Teguh Djuwarno who represents the electoral district of Tegal.


One of Jakarta`s most successful warteg may have been one at Gondangdia station in Central Jakarta, owned by Ida Farida who hails from Tegal, some 350km eastwards from Jakarta. Farida runs her warteg to cater to at least 250 costumers each day at the busy station where they can get the food in a self-service fashion.

Farida lets customers serve themselves and take the food in accordance with what they like to have and the amount they can finish. "I let customers take the food themselves. They can choose which and how much food they like," she said in a recent interview with this writer.

"I pity them if I or my assistants that take the food for the customers. I know it, my customers are mostly those of the less fortunate people, Bajaj drivers, peddlers," Farida said, adding that she is not afraid of undervaluing the price for food eaten by customers though she knows one or two customers sometimes eat more but pay less.

Farida said her warteg, one of the busiest in the neighborhood, employs 12 assistants who do different tasks, from shopping for the raw materials at nearby wet markets, cooking and cleaning the dishes and the kiosk.

Responding to the question what she thought of the so-called warteg tax, Farida regretted the plan if it was ever imposed on her business by the authority. "I oppose strongly that plan by the Jakarta municipal administration. It will not only make business bankrupt but also create trouble for my customers," she emphasized.


The Jakarta municipal administration had earlier planned to impose the tax starting on 1 January 2011 where a 10 percent food service tax on such businesses with annual sales of more than 60 million rupiahs (6,660 US dollar) per year . The 2009 Law on Local Taxation and Levies allows local administrations to tax small-scale businesses in that business category.

Following the public outcry, Governor Bowo has backed down and said he would delay the implementation of the new tax. "The new regulation has been approved by the Home Ministry, but I, as governor, have the authority to not sign it. I decided to postpone it," he said after a meeting with representatives of warteg owners at City Hall last Monday.

The number of poor people in Indonesia in 2009 was 14.15 percent of the total population or 32, 52 million and the government has set a target to reduce the number to 30.32 million people this year, or a reduction of 2.20 million people. This target is deemed somewhat difficult to achieve by the government alone.

Poverty-related problems cannot be borne only by the government but all parties in the country should be involved in solving them, Vice President Boediono said. "My idea of solving and tackling all kinds of poverty-related problems is by motivating all parties to synchronize their actions and activities in reducing poverty," he said in his keynote speech at the third International Conference of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) earlier this year.

He said one of the basic functions of the state was to eradicate poverty in tandem with other problems without neglecting other interests. "The security and social condition of a country cannot be handled well without handling the poverty-related problems first," he said.

The vice-president pointed out that one of the government`s programs was to solve poverty problems, as it was also a National Programs of the Independent Communities Empowerment (PNPM) established at the time when Indonesia faced economic crisis in 1997/1998.(*)