Jakarta's Capital Idea

Jakarta may be one of the most besieged cities on the planet, beset by a plethora of woes: overcrowding, pollution, groundwater subsidence, staggering traffic jams, collapsing infrastructure and more.

The answer? The same answer that Brazil, Nigeria, Malaysia and other countries have devised: move the seat of government to a new city despite the fact that it rarely if ever does any good for the city left behind.

Nonetheless, if it sounds farfetched, Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, last month said the government is seriously considering moving the government to Borneo or West Java. Two sites have been identified – Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, an hour and a half flight away across open water, and Jonggol in West Java, a more manageable 48 km south of the massive conurbation known as Jabotabek, which combines the beginning letters of Jakarta and the suburban jurisdictions of Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi.

Any such move, analysts say, risks kicking off one of Southeast Asia's greatest real estate coups. One of the two main property developers in the Jonggol area, according to a Reuters dispatch, is Bakrieland Development, owned by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, the head of the Golkar Party, who has gained rising clout with the government after he forced the ouster of former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati. The other is Ciputra Group, a massive property group that rose to prominence through close connections to Army generals and the Suharto family, still a formidable force 10 years after the onetime strongman's ouster from power and despite the army's considerable loss of sway.

Moving the government out of Jakarta has been a longtime dream. Both Sukarno and Suharto, the country's first two leaders, proposed the idea.

With government ministries and office strewn throughout the city, the argument is that the urban nightmare is making it harder and harder for government to function. Some 900 cars and countless motorcycles are added to city streets and roads every day at a time when average traffic oozes along at 8 km. per hour. On Sept. 16, a 103-meter section of four-lane highway collapsed and fell into the Japat River in North Jakarta. In the same week, a 115-meter stretch of flood canal embankment collapsed in South Jakarta.

Traffic jams are estimated to cost at least $1.4 billion a year in lost productivity. The Jakarta city administration has predicted total gridlock by 2012 without drastic action as the population grows and as vehicle sales soar by about 15 percent annually. Although the official census put the population of Jakarta itself at 9.58 million, Greater Jakarta actually is believed to have about 26 million people, rising to 40 million by 2030.

For many Jakartans, a move to free up the crippling traffic jams by decongesting the city would be welcome. But that hasn't worked in Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan or Burma. As nations have moved their political center away from their capital cities, the primary effect has mostly been to engineer more decay in the city left behind. Rather than fixing Jakarta, if the politicians were to move somewhere else, they would probably just ignore the city even more. Jakarta, as the country's commercial hub, can be expected to continue to experience explosive growth; the chaos can be expected to worsen.

Urban policy and transportation experts say gains from moving are illusory. Relocating Brazil's capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, Pakistan's from Karachi to Islamabad and Nigeria's from Lagos to Abuja didn't prevent those cities from extending their sprawl. Rio's population tripled since the seat of government was moved to Brasilia in 1960, while that of Lagos, which ceded capital status to Abuja in 1991, is expected to grow to 15 million by 2025.

Kenneth Corey, a professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan State University, told the Jakarta Globe recently that moving the capital would be no help.

"I know of no evidence that documents conclusively that traffic congestion is reduced by relocating all or some functions out of a national capital," Corey said. Wendell Cox, an expert on urban policy and transportation issues with the consultancy Demographia, said residents of Greater Jakarta could look forward to ever-worsening gridlock regardless of where the capital is.

"Based upon the experiences of Abuja, Islamabad and Brasilia, I would be surprised if a new remote capital would reduce Jakarta's future population by more than two million, and it could be substantially less than that. A megacity of 38 million would be just as unmanageable as one of 40 million," Cox said. He stressed that ultimately, while relocating the capital might make Jakarta marginally less crowded and would have other benefits; the city is still destined to suffer gridlock without a massive investment in infrastructure.

"If a principal objective of the capital move is to reduce traffic congestion, then it would be far better to spend the money on the infrastructure needed to do that rather than taking the approach of moving the capital to reduce traffic congestion," he said.

There are so many problems in Jakarta that it is hard to know where to start. There are no clear lines of authority, with some areas under the jurisdiction of the central government and others under the control of the Jakarta city administration, and still others under the control of several individual city governments, making it extremely difficult to get anything done. The city is faced with flooding, subsidence, lack of sanitation, inadequate sewage and substandard public transport.

Some 13 natural and artificial rivers run through the city, forming the main drainage system in lieu of a sewage system. Sand and delta sediments are up to 300 meters thick, meaning that pilings must be sunk to extra-deep levels to maintain stability. In the case of the flood control embankment collapse, the pilings were driven to nine meters deep, with some sunk into soil that couldn't take the loading. The highway collapse apparently suffered from the same problems. The remaining two lanes are also at risk of collapse, authorities said, adding to the traffic chaos. Additional pilings are being sunk to prop up the other two lanes.

There is also the question of what has been delicately described as "human error," with contractors to state-owned agencies cutting corners on how deep they sink the pilings. "There's more corruption in the planning and the implementation stages, which leads to substandard infrastructure being built," an official with the Indonesian Water Institute said.

Groundwater subsidence — first observed as long ago as 1926 — is continuing at a frightening rate, with some parts of north Jakarta sinking as much as 88 mm (3.5 inches) a year, exacerbated by massive property development and groundwater extraction. Rising sea levels along the North Jakarta coast have led to increases in tidal flooding.

Fransiskus Trisbiantara, a civil engineering expert at Trisakti University, called for regular checks on roads, particularly coastal roads. "Monitoring is part of planning, and that's what the government is failing to do," he said. "We don't have a culture that espouses proper planning, that considers all aspects of a project from the very start."

With reporting from the Jakarta Globe