It is half past two in the afternoon in Jakarta’s Kota and the sun-baked streets are crowded with vehicles of all description and food sellers. Just a normal day, except for a line of people holding stacks of crisp banknotes on the side of the street.
Mariana Simanungkalit, originally from North Sumatra, is among them. Wearing a hat and a jacket, the 40-year-old dashes for a car that has pulled over. She thrusts the money toward the driver and starts talking. When the driver takes off, she sighs but does not look too disappointed.
On normal days Mariana cooks and sells Bataknese dishes to help her husband, who drives an angkot, or public minivan, make ends meet.
During Ramadan, however, she sells money. “I have been doing this for five years. I started on the fifth day of Ramadan and will finish the night before Idul Fitri,” the mother of three said.
“There are probably 100 people doing the same things in this area. We are competing with each other to get buyers.”
On Idul Fitri, Muslims here traditionally give children a small amount of money, ranging from Rp 2,000 to Rp 20,000 (25 cents to $2.35). As a result, small-denomination banknotes are in high demand, particularly crisp, new banknotes because “they look good,” Mariana said.
During Ramadan, Bank Indonesia provides a free service exchanging large bills with smaller denominations. During the week, the central bank’s five mobile units are stationed near the National Monument (Monas) in Central Jakarta.
“A lot of people don’t want to stand in the long line there. So that’s why we are here, to help those who wish to exchange their money without having to wait for hours,” Mariana said. “But of course, there is a price they have to pay for the service we provide.”
For every Rp 100,000 that people exchange, Mariana and most of the others in the same line of work charge about Rp 10,000. They usually get their banknotes from a bandar, or agent.
“A bandar gets the money from Bank Indonesia and then sells it to us retailers. We pay Rp 50,000 for every Rp 1 million,” she said.
The business has been around since the late 1990s in Jakarta. There are a number of spots where people like Mariana traditionally do business during Ramadan, including Pondok Indah in South Jakarta and Kampung Rambutan in East Jakarta.
In the Kota area, motorcyclists are the most common customers.
“People of all social classes exchange their money here,” Mariana said. “Those who come in cars usually buy the Rp 20,000 bills. Middle-class people usually buy Rp 5,000 to Rp 10,000 bills. Lower-class people get the Rp 1,000 and Rp 2,000 bills.”
Mariana said that to get a stat in the business she had to pawn some of her possessions at the state-owned pawn shop, Pegadaian. She raised about Rp 7 million.
“But it’s not always like that. Even if you don’t have the money to start with, you can ask a bandar to help you start with a smaller amount,” she said.
“We don’t make a big profit, as you can see, but doing this is better than washing clothes for people because you get the money directly, not at the end of the month like most people do,” she said. “I can take home an average of Rp 50,000 a day.”
However, during the second week of Ramadan, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) declared the sale of small-denomination bills or new banknotes for a profit haram , meaning it is prohibited by Islam. The council said people should exchange money in equal amounts.
Mariana said what she did should not be called haram.
“We don’t force people, let alone cheat them. We need each other and they can also bargain. I don’t see why it can be called haram,” she said. “You can of course call it haram if you insert fake money in the stack, which some people actually do in this business.”
Another money seller, Andi Simorangkir, echoed her sentiment.
“We are just like other street vendors. The only difference is the thing we sell,” said the 36-year-old who just started in the business l two weeks ago. “We are working under the sun, selling something we don’t force people to buy. People need us because they don’t want to be bothered standing in line for hours to exchange money.”
Ujang, a buyer, said the streetside money exchangers helped people like him get small denominations easily at a “relatively low cost and with almost no effort.”
“I just paid Rp 70,000 to get Rp 800,000 worth of small bills,” said the 23-year-old accessories vendor. “I would rather pay than have to stand in a very long line.”
Purniasih, a passer-by, said she did not go to people like Mariana or Andi to exchange money but thinks that the street business comes in handy especially for people who do not have the time to queue. “It is an OK thing to do. What they do is actually helpful,” she said.
Erika Sinaga is an old hand in the business. The 34-year-old has been selling small-denomination notes since 1999.
“I was doing this long before I got married. Now that I have two children, I’m still doing it because it’s a pretty good business,” she said. “You don’t make a big profit, but you can almost be certain that you will always get buyers every day.”
After having been in the business for more than a decade, Erika knows that small-denomination notes are always in great demand ahead of Idul Fitri.
“We’ve been doing it for years, so I find it strange that now the MUI says it is a haram business,” she said. “They can say that because they aren’t us, people who have to struggle just to eat. They have cars to take them anywhere they want to go, they can choose anything they want to eat. What we do is not something you can label haram. Corruption is haram. That’s what they should mind, not us.”