Medan, Indonesia – When Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced a surprise plan to move the country’s capital during his annual address to the nation on 16 August 2019, he outlined a grandiose vision.
“A capital city is not just a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation,” he said, just one day before Indonesia’s 74th anniversary of Independence. “This is for the realisation of economic equality and justice.”
On Tuesday, Jokowi’s grand plan moved a step closer to reality when parliament approved legislation setting out the legalities of relocating the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, the eastern portion of Borneo, including such issues as funding and governance.
Jakarta, a vast metropolis that has never captured the international imagination like Bangkok or Hanoi, is sinking under the weight of unregulated groundwater extraction, clogged with traffic, clouded by smog and overcrowded.
Under the relocation plan, 1.5 million of the city’s 11 million residents would move to the jungles of Indonesian Borneo at an eye-watering cost of $32bn.
Jokowi has described the scheme as a bid to “make our country like America,” likening the dynamic between Jarkarta and the new capital to the relationship between New York and Washington, DC.
“Java has also long been overburdened by the fact that it is home for almost 60 percent of Indonesians and the centre of the country’s economy, contributing more than half of Indonesia’s gross domestic product,” Deasy Simandjuntak, an associate fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
“Relocating the capital to Kalimantan is aimed at spreading economic activities outside of Java as well as helping ensure more equitable economic development, especially for the Eastern Indonesia region.”
The government has claimed the location of the capital – close to the city of Balikpapan and provincial capital of Samarinda – will put it out of reach of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, even though Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is prone to such disasters country-wide.
Aaron Opdyke, a humanitarian engineer from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering, expressed scepticism that relocating the capital would stop the country from ranking among the top 10 countries in deaths per capita from disasters.
“Too often though, governments jump to relocate settlements expecting that they can cut disaster losses by just reducing exposure to hazards,” Opdyke said. “We see repeatedly that disasters are often distorted by policy makers for political gain, without truly understanding the drivers of disaster risk. Vulnerabilities of our infrastructure, economies, and social systems often have a much larger role to play in disaster risk creation – factors that are rarely solved by starting anew.”
On Monday, Indonesia’s planning minister, Suharso Monoarfa, announced the new capital would be named “Nusantara,” meaning “archipelago,” following a review by Jokowi of about 80 proposed names.
Jokowi is not the first Indonesian president to attempt to move the capital.
Plans to do so date back to the 1950s under Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. Since then, other leaders including Soeharto and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s second and sixth presidents, have mooted plans only to abandon them in the face of seemingly insurmountable logistical problems.
The latest plan proposes procuring 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres) of land to relocate government officials, civil servants and security forces such as police and members of the military.
About one-fifth of the $32bn price tag is to be covered by the government budget, with state-owned enterprises and other private sector financiers contributing the rest.
Despite the Herculean feat before him, Jokowi, often referred to as the “Infrastructure President”, thanks to a fondness for toll roads and dams, has stuck to his vision, even amid controversy over the swift passage of the law when compared with legislation addressing issues such as sexual violence and workers’ rights that has languished for years.
“Prior to the bill’s issuance some observers noticed the similarity between its hasty deliberation process and that of the controversial Job Creation Law which was passed in October 2020, which many deemed substantially lacking public participation and transparency,” Simandjuntak said.
In an open letter to the lower house of parliament ahead of the legislation’s passage, legal experts at Mulawarman University in Samarinda raised concerns the bill had received inadequate community input and contained “legal irregularities”.
The letter, signed by Dean of Law Mahendra Putra Kurnia, noted Nusantara would be governed by a person elected directly by the president every five years, a model that was “potentially unconstitutional and centralist.”
One of the contenders for the role is the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was Jokowi’s running mate when the pair ran for office in 2012, with Jokowi winning the governorship of Jakarta and Ahok becoming his deputy.
Ahok was jailed for two years in 2017 for blasphemy after he was found guilty of insulting a passage in the Quran.
Another criticism of the relocation plan is the potential forced removal of the Indigenous Paser-Balik people from their lands, forest clearance and threats to local flora and fauna including endangered orangutans.
“Environmentalists have warned against the potential damage to the region’s ecosystems and rainforests already encroached by oil palm and mining industries’ activities,” Simandjuntak said. “All these potential problems would have to be dealt with carefully.”
Despite pandemic-related delays, construction on the new city could begin as soon as 2024, the last year of Jokowi’s second and final term in office.
If international experience is any guide, the project is likely to take decades to complete.
Brasilia, which opened in 1960, was inaugurated more than 60 years after Brazil decided to relocate its capital from Rio de Janeiro. Australia’s Parliament House opened in Canberra in 1927, but it was not until the 1950s that most government departments relocated to the city. Both cities have faced criticism over the years for being badly designed and unpleasant to live in.
Critics also argue that Jakarta’s problems cannot simply be run away from.
“Whether the capital moves or not, Jakarta still needs repair,” Elisa Sutanudjaja, the director of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, told Al Jazeera.
Sutanudjaja said Jakarta still needed to deal with an array of issues including air pollution, land subsidence, inadequate access to clean water and problems with waste removal.
“And in the midst of a climate crisis like this, building something new and something so massive, actually adds a huge amount of carbon to the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s not like moving to a new house when you can just sell the old one.”