‘Sinking’ Jakarta pins hopes on rising star

New governor is promising to redress mounting civic woes of Indonesian capital built on a swamp.

Storm in Jakarta
About 300,000 families in Jakarta live in illegal settlements [Melati Kaye/Al Jazeera]

Jakarta, Indonesia – As a mega-storm flooded Jakarta last week and stranded half the city, its new governor Joko Widodo stood by his vision for the Indonesian capital.

“No traffic jam. No flooding. No poor.”

With a population of 10 million, Jakarta ranks as one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing and most-congested cities.

Thousands fled inundated homes, the central business district was paralysed, and drenched commuter rail tracks left half the city stranded. The new governor had to declare a 10-day emergency – an anticlimactic end to his first hundred days in office.

If Widodo – or “Jokowi”, as he is popularly known, can deliver on his promises to address the city’s social, economic and environmental problems, the governor could become a major star in Indonesian politics. 

But if he fails, the city could seize up in terminal gridlock. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has predicted traffic will bring the city to a complete standstill in a little over a decade.

Jakarta is the nerve centre of an economy predicted to overtake Germany and the UK by 2030. Yet a receding water table is causing the megalopolis to sink by an average of 10 centimetres a year. The city is built on a swamp that weaves through 13 converging river deltas.

Its population has been growing at an average rate of nearly 3 percent a year since Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Many of the migrants who move from the countryside to Jakarta in search of a better life find housing along urban waterways, which turn into flood zones almost every rainy season.


Jokowi pledged not to evict people, but his draft plan calls for relocations to subsidised flats [Melati Kaye/Al Jazeera]

This points to the inherent contradictions in Jokowi’s promised trifecta: the three goals could prove mutually exclusive. How to rationalise traffic and rein in floods while at the same time preserving the livelihoods and communities of the city’s poor?

In less than a decade, Jokowi has risen from being a furniture dealer in Central Java to one of Indonesia’s most popular politicians. Just eight years ago, with the backing of the National Furniture and Handicraft Association, he won the mayoral race in his hometown of Solo. His populist style immediately set him apart; and his anti-corruption battles won many admirers. 

Whereas previous administrations cleared out street peddlers with eviction notices and police batons, Jokowi switched to community forums. After listening to vendors, he eventually persuaded them to join in a “relocation parade” to a designated “traditional mall” where they could sell their wares. With a similar sense of fanfare, he convinced urban squatters to resettle elsewhere.

Jokowi brings the same sense of showmanship to his new post in Jakarta. In December, right after assuming office, he unveiled a draft of his plans for the megalopolis.

He wants to move food vendors off streets and sidewalks to Solo-style malls. Urban rivers would be dredged to speed rainwater drainage. He will revive a long-neglected 2007 commitment to set aside 30 percent of city land as green space. He has bought more public mini-buses and recommitted to building a monorail and an elevated subway. To guard against rising sea levels and sinking land, he will erect a giant sea wall.

These grandiose plans were promptly dubbed “Joko-Wows” by local media.


But some of his constituents remain un-wowed. Jakarta’s Urban Poor Consortium estimates that the city has 300,000 families living in illegal settlements. Squatters currently inhabit two-thirds of the 43 acres Jokowi plans to convert into green space and many more live along the riverbanks.

Jokowi signed a campaign pledge not to evict people, but his draft plan calls for relocations to subsidised flats or centralised “superblocks”. In places like the North Jakarta slum of Muara Angke, however, many residents have no intention of moving, despite drainage ditches so choked with garbage that stray cats appear to be walking on water.

“As long as I can eat, I plan to stay put,” Muhayati, a local resident, said. “My in-laws are here, as are my kids. This is my home, my village.” Nor does her husband plan to move his motorcycle sticker vending business from an unlicensed curbside pushcart to a regulated mall.

To appease such constituents, Jokowi has allocated a fourth of his proposed $4.83bn city budget to services for the poor. In November, he began distributing health cards entitling residents to free service at city hospitals, a programme expected to reach half the population by year-end. Under his “Jakarta Smart” programme, students from poor families receive $20 a month for school fees.

Could such programmes placate lower-income constituents?

“For the moment, yes,” Jokowi told Al Jazeera in one of his trademark on-the-fly sidewalk interviews, a hallmark of his media relations style. “After all, it’s only been three months.”

Jokowi’s grace period with anti-poverty activists has not yet ended. “So far, he’s just saying things to the media,” Edi Saidi, of the Urban Poor Consortium, said. But he wonders if the new governor can overcome his underlings’ bureaucratic inertia.

“Jokowi is open to peoples’ proposals but there is no [administrative] bridge” to implement his promises, Saidi worries. A crucial test looms soon enough: when Jokowi entered office, gave his sub-district officers until mid-March to tend to their jurisdictions as graciously as “banks serve their customers” or face dismissal.


Experts on flood control and traffic management – the two other planks in the governor’s platform – have adopted similar wait-and-see attitudes.

Yayat Supriyatna, a hydrologist at Jakarta’s TriSakti University, hails Jokowi’s anti-flooding measures as prudent and long overdue. “The river needs space to move,” he said, adding that long-term benefits from dredging would require 15- to 50-metre no-development zones along the entire length of urban rivers. Politically, this could be a tough sell.

Ofyar A Thamin, a civil engineering professor at Bandung’s Institute of Technology, is all praise for Jokowi’s public transportation initiatives, but laments his recent decision to build six elevated toll roads in the inner city.

“Traffic makes Jakartans move and plan their lives one and a half times slower than is normal,” Thamin says. “Toll roads will only incentivise buying cars and aggravate the problem.”

Sixty to seventy percent of the city’s personal vehicles are owned by medium- and lower-income wage earners. “This should not be cost-effective for them,” Thamin commented, pointing out that as a result, individuals are spending more on fuel and cars while cutting back on other purchases. More cars also lead to more pollution – and thus more health problems.

Reconciling the contradictions of Jokowi’s agenda will take finesse and a fair amount of time. But the governor, a member of the centre-left Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), looks like a man on the move. Already there’s talk of a presidential bid in 2019, and some wonder whether he may leave his work in Jakarta unfinished.

At his gubernatorial inauguration, the PDI-P paid food vendors to make meatball soup for all the attendees. But, for the sake of his own political future and that of his beleaguered city, Jokowi will have to enrich the recipe over the rest of his term – more meatballs, less broth; more achievement, less verbiage.

Source: Al Jazeera