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Medan, Indonesia – Teacher Istu Prayogi spent the 1990s living in Indonesia’s congested capital of Jakarta, all the time battling a runny nose, headaches and shortness of breath.
It turned out the problem was all around him, and he was not the only one suffering.
“I was diagnosed by a pulmonary specialist with spots in my lungs caused by air pollution,” Istu, a teacher at the Nusantara Jaya Tourism Academy, told Al Jazeera.
“The government didn’t pay attention to the poor air quality in Indonesia.”
Now, Istu who has since moved to the satellite city of Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta is one of 32 plaintiffs in a landmark “citizen lawsuit” that aims to hold the government responsible for failing to fulfill Indonesian citizens’ right to clean air.
Jakarta’s Central District Court will deliver its verdict on the case on June 10, after almost two years of legal wrangling over who is to blame for the filthy air of a city that is regularly ranked among the world’s most polluted, according to world air quality indexes.
In 2019, a study produced by Vital Strategies and the Bandung Institute of Technology (BIT) found that Indonesia had the highest number of premature deaths associated with air pollution in Southeast Asia. The report also found that, in Jakarta, “the levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), the pollutant most hazardous to health, routinely exceeded that of the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines by four or five times”.
As part of the citizen lawsuit – a legal manoeuvre in which private citizens traditionally file a lawsuit in an effort to enforce a statute and a tactic often used in environmental law cases – the plaintiffs are not requesting financial compensation but instead hope that legal action will raise public awareness of the issue of air pollution in Jakarta and pressure the government to act.
The suit names Indonesia’s president, the minister of Environment and Forestry, the minister of Home Affairs, the governor of Jakarta and the governors of Banten and West Java provinces.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs have asked that the panel of judges presiding over the case declare that the defendants have been negligent in fulfilling citizens’ rights to a healthy living environment and order them to tighten national air quality standards.
“We need a more robust legal framework and more progressive laws and sanctions regarding air pollution,” Leonard Simanjuntak, the country director of Greenpeace Indonesia, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit as a private citizen, told Al Jazeera.
Human rights issue
More than 10 million people live in Jakarta, but that number swells beyond 30 million once those in its five satellite cities and surrounding regencies – the site of thousands of industrial estates and manufacturing hubs – are included.
“This case is so important because we already know that breathing clean air is our right as humans,” Bondan Andriyanu, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia told Al Jazeera.
“Air pollution on today’s scale clearly violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This human rights perspective changes everything because the government then has clear, legally enforceable obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights [of the citizens].”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016, outdoor air pollution (ambient air pollution) was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths globally, 91 percent of which occurred in low- and middle-income countries, with the greatest number of such deaths occurring in the WHO’s Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions.
The WHO standard for annual ambient air quality is 10 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre of air, while Indonesia’s national standard is 15 micrograms.
But Bondan says official data relating to fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, received by Greenpeace from the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry (MoEF) from 2020 – a year when the coronavirus pandemic meant the amount of traffic was lower in some months – showed 28.6 micrograms per cubic metre of air.
“If we compare our national ambient air quality standard to the WHO standard we are still far behind it. Even during the pandemic, the annual PM 2.5 data in Jakarta was above the national ambient air quality standard,” he said.
‘My child rarely goes out to play’
Elisa Sutanudjaja, the director of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, also joined the suit.
She told Al Jazeera that she became aware of the poor air quality in Jakarta when she was pregnant and her fears about the effects of air pollution have only increased with time.
“As the parent of a 10-year-old girl we almost always use public transportation in Jakarta or walk,” she told Al Jazeera. “But we found we couldn’t enjoy our trips because of the pollution, especially from the fumes of motor vehicles. Nowadays, my child rarely goes outside to play.”
According to the 2019 report by Vital Strategies and the Bandung Institute of Technology (BIT), for which air quality experts from BIT took samples from three locations around Jakarta during the wet and dry seasons, the main sources of pollution in the city come from vehicles, secondary aerosols such as ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate, construction activities, open burning of biomass and other fuels, paved road dust, re-suspended soil particles, sea salt and coal combustion.
“The regulations for coal power plants in Indonesia and their emissions are so relaxed,” said Greenpeace’s Leonard. “There are coal power plants all around the outskirts of Jakarta and, if we use mathematical modelling, of course the emissions carry to the city.”
In addition to tightening regulations around coal emissions, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit also hope the government will rethink its whole urban planning strategy in the city.
“The central government, through the Ministry of Public Works, continues to insist on building toll roads even though private vehicles are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution,” said Elisa. “I hope that through this lawsuit, there will be a strategy put in place to change this unsustainable development model and mobility policy.”
“As long as the development model is still car-centric, there will be no significant improvements.”
For their part, the defendants have rejected the suggestion that they are responsible for Jakarta’s noxious air.
“The people filing the lawsuit have also contributed to the decline in air quality,” the Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan who is listed as Defendant V in the citizen lawsuit, told the media in 2019.
“Unless everyone rides a bicycle, then it would be different. The air quality is not only caused by one or two professions, but by all of us, including those that filed the civil lawsuit.”