Nusantara, Indonesia’s proposed new capital city, an ecological bane or a strategic economic boon? - Hindustan Times

Nusantara, Indonesia’s proposed new capital city, an ecological bane or a strategic economic boon?

Apr 24, 2024 01:23 PM IST

This article is authored by Ravindran Devagunam, senior correspondent - foreign policy and politics, Malaysia Gazette.

The United Nation’s definition of a developing country is, “a country with a relatively low standard of living, underdeveloped industrial base, and moderate to low Human Development Index (HDI)”. This definition in itself calls for decisive, bold and out-o-the-box thinking and actions to be undertaken by able leaders of these economies in order to catalyse changes to benefit future generations to come. More often than not, these actions create a conundrum that could impact various concerns, including that of displacement of societies, environment or the ecology while pursuing economic gains, improvement of human development standards, administrative cohesiveness or even safeguarding the sovereignty of the nation in question. It is a fine balance that has to be struck by duly elected leadership of these countries in order to drive their nation to its next level of development.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (PTI) PREMIUM
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (PTI)

The Republic of Indonesia, a fast-developing country, has a population close to 280 million people and constitutes 40% of the total 700 million inhabitants of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional grouping of 10 Southeast Asian Nations. It is the world’s largest archipelago state covering an area of 1.9 million square kilometres and is comprised of over 17,000 islands.

It is a Nation that that spans 5,000 kilometres from east to west and is situated between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its geographical span necessitates three time zones to function, Western, Central and Eastern Indonesia Time. Air travel covering the archipelago-wide span can take between 7 to 8 hours. Flight-time between the western-most city of Medan, north of Sumatra Island, to Jakarta, the current national capital on the island of Java, takes 2 hours and 20 minutes. Flying between Jakarta and its eastern-most point in West Papua, takes over 6 hours.

It is ranked as the 16th largest economy globally, earning it a seat at the G20. Its gross domestic product (GDP), at $1.32 trillion, makes up more than a third of the total $3.6 trillion output of ASEAN. Its GDP is expected to grow by over 50% to surpass the $2 trillion mark by 2028. With this growing economic clout, Indonesia has in recent times made significant attempts to become a key member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In contrast, concerted development and wealth creation across this complex and geographically challenging archipelago has not been as balanced. Oxfam International has listed Indonesia as the country with the 6th highest wealth disparity in the world. While the Indonesian government had been diligent in trying to reduce the overall poverty rate, its Central Statistics Agency (BPS) has pointed out that the overall development and consequential wealth concentration has been primarily centred in Jakarta and the island of Java. Java is home to 60% of the country’s population and a focal point for more than half of its economic activity. The island of Sumatra to the west, has experienced a lesser, but yet somewhat sizable, proportion of development and prosperity. Most of the other Islands across the archipelago, however, have experienced much lower development and sequential wealth accumulation. This is most evident in its eastern-most dominion, West Papua, which has some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

In addition, Jakarta, situated on the island of Java, home to 10 million people and housing a population three times that size in its surrounding metropolitan area, is said to be one of the most rapidly sinking cities in the world. Estimates say that one-third of the city could be submerged by 2050. It also experiences some of the worst traffic gridlocks and is heavily flood prone. Also, its air and groundwater are heavily polluted. The total annual loss to the economy from this worsening impasse is estimated at $4.5 billion.

In addition to the overcrowding and infrastructural complexities, according to the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency of Indonesia, Jakarta is surrounded by active fault lines making it intensely vulnerable to earthquakes. The government, nevertheless, plans to spend another US$ 40 billion over the next decade for further mitigation efforts in and around Jakarta.

After years of alleviation efforts, the Indonesian government has recently decided to build a greenfield capital some 2,000 kilometres northeast of Jakarta on the island of Borneo. Nusantara, which is an old Javanese term for archipelago, is a 2,560 square kilometre site in the dense forest site of East Kalimantan. By relocating the capital, the government hopes to not just redistribute wealth, but to create an administrative seat of government that is more centred and with less travel and operational complexities to access the far reaches of this archipelago.

Under the project, Jakarta will remain the country’s commercial and financial centre for the foreseeable future, but government administrative functions will move to Nusantara. With an estimated cost of $35 billion to develop the new capital, the ambition is to ensure that it is a city that is environmentally friendly at the heart with hopes of becoming carbon-neutral by 2045. The city plans stipulate that it would be a green, walkable metropolis powered with renewable energy sources and over 65 percent of the developed area remaining forested.

However, some researchers and environmentalists have raised concerns that the project could harm the biodiversity of the surrounding forest and coastal waters. The area constitutes mangroves and wildlife which include orang-utan, sun bears and long-nosed monkeys. Furthermore, it is said that at least five villages comprising over 100 indigenous Balik people are already relocating with more villages expected to be impacted as the pace of city development continues.

The inaugural date for Nusantara is set for 17 August 2024, which coincides with Indonesia’s independence day. This legacy project of the current President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, or better known as Pak Jokowi, is expected to continue under the leadership of its President-elect, Mr. Prabowo Subianto when the latter officially assumes office in October 2024. The Indonesian Government projects close to 2 million people relocating to this new capital city by 2045, a date that coincides with 100 years of the Indonesian independence.

Voices of concern from environmental groups around the world have increased with the fast-approaching Nusantara inaugural date. However, the urgent need to for such a project has been precipitated by the current capital proving to be a continued economic drain, the need to rapidly redistribute development and wealth to far-reaches of the nation, to ease logistical challenges and to establish an administrative centre that would best meet the needs of a rapidly developing country. Clearly a conundrum for a leadership seeking to drive step-change actions that could help catapult this nation to it next phase of development while balancing the impact on the ecology, wildlife and displacement of societies.

Some comparisons from other fast-developing nations include the recently approved land-bridge project in Southern Thailand, connecting deep-sea ports in Chumphon and Ranong provinces. This bold project straddling the Malay Peninsula is expected to provide greater connectivity between Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and the member countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical Cooperation. Thailand, an economy which is currently over $500 billion, could well double its GDP in a relatively short time with such an ambitious project that is also expected to create several-hundred thousand jobs. However, environmental groups have opposed the project citing water tables being impacted while possible displacement of existing fishing communities.

Another case in point is the contentious 825-kilometre Char Dham highway expansion project in Uttarakhand, India. This ambitious project also had active opposition from vocal activists citing environmental concerns. The Indian Supreme Court, however, allowed the project to proceed in the keen interest of India’s national security.

At the end of the day, developing nations need to undertake audacious projects that help alleviate congestion, security threats and that unequivocally help provide robust growth prospects for their respective economies. That is not to say that activism or environmental concerns must not be heeded. These nations have democratically elected governments bound by their commitment to ensure minimal environmental harm or ecological damage to the community, flora or fauna. The electorate, on the other hand, have a moral responsibility to keep these elected governments in check for their commitment and integrity to act in the best interest of the individual sovereign nation. This helps balance environmental sustainability with undaunted and steadfast focus on economic growth and security of the developing world.

This article is authored by Ravindran Devagunam, senior correspondent - foreign policy and politics, Malaysia Gazette.

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