Must Indonesia spend billions to ease overcrowding in Jakarta?

Relocating Indonesia’s capital will not relocate Jakarta’s existing problems. Joko Widodo’s administration needs to face these problems head-on.

By Isabel Yeo, Edited by Tan Jie Ying

Discussions abound as the Indonesian government contemplates relocating its capital. The National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) was tasked to conduct the feasibility study and hopes to conclude the study by the end of this year.

This news hardly comes as a surprise. In 1957, President Sukarno considered shifting out of Jakarta for political reasons. Today, intentions to relocate the country’s capital are more pragmatically motivated than political.

Jakarta’s grim conditions are not driving anyone away

 Indonesians across the country are drawn to Jakarta in search of a better life. But Jakarta can only provide a better life for so many Indonesians. The capital’s population currently stands at around 10 million even though it was built to accommodate only five to six million people.

Severe over-crowding – and the lack of proper housing – means a deluge of slums in the capital. Indonesians who have purposefully shifted to Jakarta are dealt an equally bad hand – poor sanitation and the threat of regular flooding.

Few want to leave despite these circumstances.

“This is our home. If we move from here, we will have to pay rent somewhere. We cannot afford it so we will make do how to live with floods,” said Saripudin. Saripudin’s family has lived in a slum area in Jakarta for generations.

The suburban areas outside of Jakarta’s city centre aggravates overcrowding. Greater Jakarta has 30 million inhabitants, leading to congested streets and traffic.

“If the capital is not moved, people will continue to flock to Jakarta,” said Golkar politician Zainudin Amali.

Jakarta sinks at 7.5 centimetres each year thanks to groundwater extraction works. Nearly half of the city is below sea level. Relocating the country’s seat of government may be a wise move. But it is hard to tell how doing so will solve the actual problem.

The Indonesian government has a hard time choosing Indonesia’s new capital

Finding a suitable replacement for Indonesia’s next capital is not an easy task.

 Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan’s capital, is high up on the list of cities. Palangkaraya is four times the size of Jakarta. It is also President Joko Widodo’s apparent preference.

 But the Central Kalimantan city is virtually landlocked. “A key requirement for any central government is accessibility by sea, land and air, but because (Indonesia) is an archipelagic state, access from the sea is more important,” said environment planning expert Rudy Parluhutan Tambunan.

Palangkaraya is also vastly underdeveloped compared to Jakarta.  “How practical would it be to relocate the capital to Central Kalimantan, a region whose infrastructure, both in terms of quantity and quality, is decades behind Jakarta’s?” Jakarta Globe columnist Johannes Nugroho raised.

 Malang and Jonggol are among other cities on the list. These are cities on the more developed Java. But a city outside Java may be preferred as a way to spur growth in other parts of Indonesia.

 Not everyone in the Joko Widodo administration supports this move

 Jakarta’s Deputy Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat pointed up logistical cost as a major consideration. “Imagine, you must also relocate embassies, relocate research institutions,” he warned.

Moving the capital from Jakarta to a less developed city would cost about US$7.51 billion, an estimate suggested. This takes up around 4.7% of the country’s annual state budget.

This estimate is not entirely implausible. Kazakhstan spent US$12 billion on its showcase capital Astana; Malaysia spent US$2.67 billion shifting its administrative centre from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya. These numbers do not bode well Indonesia’s taxpayers.

Plans to relocate Indonesia’s capital come to nought if no one is buying it. “Would they be expected to live permanently in Central Kalimantan? Or would most of the new capital’s residents be absentees used to flying back each weekend to Java — perhaps even tripping off to Malaysia for a holiday?” Nugroho asked.

Ultimately, relocating a capital is not an easy feat. “It’s not a matter of simply moving government buildings. You also need to move the political and economical systems that has been put in place for dozens of years,” cautioned Gadjah Mada University’s Agus Hadna.

Relocating Indonesia’s capital may not even lessen the population burden on Jakarta

Jakarta will still be Indonesia’s financial centre even after the seat of government moves elsewhere. Jakarta will still be overpeopled as the economic centre continues to “attract people in search of better opportunities,” said James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute Tasmania. The actual efficacy of Indonesia’s capital relocation becomes a necessary question.

Relocating Indonesia’s seat of government may not even be necessary as Jakarta’s urban problems are not unsolvable. Jakarta’s former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) saw some success in tackling the city’s problems. “In the past (the problems) were just ‘business as usual’, but over the last three years Jakarta has seen serious improvements under Ahok,” said Rudy. Ahok alleviated congestion to a considerable extent thanks to new traffic guidelines – designated bus lanes and improved public transport network.

Ahok’s success means all is not lost for Indonesia’s capital. Joko Widodo must understand that relocating the country’s capital will not relocate Jakarta’s problems. He could spend more time on the current capital, addressing its issues head-on.