The Pasuruan tragedy in East Java in which 21 people were trampled to death on Monday in a rush to receive tithes has prompted the opposition party to criticize the government's poverty reduction program.

Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP) faction in the House of Representatives abruptly picked up its gun and used the incident as a 'bullet' to open fire at the president.

"This is a real condition that indicates increasing poverty in our society. It contradicts the president's statement in his state-of-the nation address last August that the poverty rate this year is the lowest so far," Hasto Kristanto, PDIP faction member, told a House plenary session on Tuesday.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in his state-of-the-nation speech at a House of Representatives (DPR)' plenary session last August 15, 2008 had stated the poverty rate in 2008 was the lowest in the past 10 years.

The poverty rate had declined from 17.7 percent in 2006 to 15.4 percent in March 2008. The open unemployment rate in 2006 was recorded at 10.5 percent. It dropped to 8.5 percent in February 2008, according to the president.

Yet, the Pasuran tragedy, Hasto Kristanto said, itself negated the president's claim of reduced poverty rate in the country.

Twenty-one women were killed and dozens of others injured in a stampede in the remote East Java district of Pasuruan on Monday as crowds rushed to receive a cash tithe of Rp20,000 from philanthropist Syaichon.

Kristianto noted that the number of people who died so far after they were trampled on in a stampede had reached 24 in the past two years, breaking down the number into 21 deaths at Pasuruan and three others in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta during a tithe distribution last year.

According to Police General Sutanto, such an incident had taken place four times since 2003. In 2003, four persons died under other peole's feet in a rush to receive handouts in Pejaten, also in South Jakarta.

"In contradiction to the claimed decrease in poverty, we see factual indicators of increasing poverty, an increase of 11.3 percent in food prices and of 8.8 percent in the cost of education. So, we are convinced that the president's claim in his August 16, 2008 address has been denied by realities," Kritianto said.

The office of the International Labor Organization (ILO) released a report recently that one in two workers in Indonesia was paid US$2 a day, indicating that poverty is still a major problem for Indonesian workers. But the ILO also pointed out that Indonesia's economy within 2000 and 2007 showed healthy indicators.

Therefore, Kristanto suggested that the government reexamine its data on the country's poverty rate, instead of unilaterally claiming reduced poverty to complement its eforts to 'charm' the people.

Kristanto's data might just be valid. But the objectivity of his argument on the death of 21 people in the tragedy is also questionable if he takes it as a means of measuring the extent of poverty in Indonesia, which has a population of about 228 million. After all, he is a politician of an opposition party.

The Indonesian government doesn't see any correlation between the Pasuruan tragedy with the country's poverty rate. According to Minister/State Secretary Hatta Radjasa, the tragedy has not in any way negated or disproved the government's recent pronouncement that the poverty rate was dropping.

"It (the tragedy) doesn't show anything. Our poverty rate is declining. The tragedy doesn't negate our data. Therefore, it should not be linked to the number of the country's poor," he said.

It could be true that Indonesia is today in much better economic conditions than in previous years. However, it needs to restructure its economic policies to boost the real sector and solve its poverty and unemployment problems.

Rachmat Gobel of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) said the Indonesian economy was currently in much better shape than 10 years ago when the country was hit by a monetary crisis in 1998.

"According to latest studies by the World Bank in 2008, the commodity price hikes had a positive impact on Indonesia, and on the other hand, it negatively affected China, Thailand, the Philippines, Lao and Cambodia which suffered great losses," Gobel said recently.

That's why Indonesia was lucky that it was rich in natural resources and had a vast domestic market so it was not so badly affected by the world's oil and food price hikes compared to other developing countries.

Yet, poverty and unemployment still remain a problem. Therefore, the government has set a poverty reduction target of 12-14 percent in 2009 because the poverty rate had in reality already reached 15.4 percent by March 2008.

Latif Adam, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said however, that the unemployment rate in Indonesia now stood at 8.5 percent. It was expected to grow by 0.5 percent to 9 percent in 2009 while the government's target was 7-8 percent.

The government will therefore continue to make efforts to lower the poverty rate. "The poverty graph or trend in Indonesia has steadily decreased. The poverty rate in 2008, both in percentage and absolute numbers, is the lowest in the last 10 years," said presidential spokesman Andi Mallarangeng.