The ethical dilemmas of Indonesia's new capital city - Hindustan Times
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The ethical dilemmas of Indonesia's new capital city

Apr 27, 2024 12:18 PM IST

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, confronts numerous challenges, prompting the government's ambitious plan to relocate it to Eastern Borneo. With a population exceeding 10 million, Jakarta grapples with severe congestion, pollution, and the looming threat of sinking due to rapid subsidence caused by excessive groundwater extraction and climate crisis-induced sea level rise. Experts predict that by 2050, a quarter of Jakarta could be submerged.

Indonesia: Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is seen.(AP) PREMIUM
Indonesia: Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is seen.(AP)

Congestion has reached critical levels, necessitating government convoys to rely on sirens for navigation. Air pollution, particularly during the dry season, exceeds World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended levels by five to ten times, posing severe health risks. Land subsidence, a consequence of unchecked groundwater extraction, compounds Jakarta's problems, with some areas sinking by up to 10 cm annually.

President Joko Widodo saw relocating the capital as a solution to Jakarta's issues, aiming to alleviate population pressures and prioritise sustainability. The proposed new capital in Eastern Borneo, Nusantara, is envisioned as a "sustainable forest city," with plans for environmental conservation and carbon neutrality by 2045. However, this vision faces controversy.

The decision reflects the imperative to address Jakarta's unsustainable urban development. However, it raises ethical and practical dilemmas regarding trade-offs between environmental conservation, social equity, and economic development. Striking a balance between these interests will be crucial for ensuring the long-term sustainability and resilience of the nation's urban centres.

The initiative to establish Nusantara represents a monumental shift from Jakarta's issues to a vision of sustainability, equitable power distribution, and modern infrastructure. Spanning 256,000 hectares, Nusantara aims to house over 1.5 million civil servants and become a beacon of environmental consciousness. Bambang Susantono, head of the Nusantara National Capital Authority, envisions reforesting 65% of the area, emphasising the "forest city" concept. However, environmentalists express scepticism, warning of ecological ramifications and deforestation risks in East Kalimantan's biodiverse habitats.

In the discourse surrounding capital relocation, acknowledging Jakarta's challenges while navigating controversies surrounding Nusantara is crucial. Striking a balance between addressing immediate issues and realizing the aspirations of sustainability will shape Indonesia's urban development trajectory.

The relocation of Indonesia's capital to Nusantara in Eastern Borneo not only addresses Jakarta's pressing challenges but also intersects with the livelihoods and cultural heritage of indigenous communities, like the Balik people. Despite government assurances of support and compensation, concerns persist among community members regarding the fairness and adequacy of these measures. The construction process reshapes landscapes and traditions, disrupting sacred sites, altering water flows, and uprooting ancestral graves, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities among indigenous populations.

As construction progresses, dissenting voices caution against the haste and ambition of the project, viewing it as a political manoeuvre aimed at securing a legacy for President Joko Widodo. The grandiose plans for Nusantara, symbolised by the forthcoming presidential palace shaped like the mythical bird Garuda, prompt reflection on the costs, both financial and environmental, borne by the state and local communities.

Environmentalists raise concerns over the potential impacts of the new capital on Borneo's pristine forests and wildlife habitats. Deforestation driven by urban development threatens endangered species like orangutans and poses risks to indigenous communities dependent on these forests for their livelihoods. Despite government emphasis on sustainable development, critics argue that the relocation may exacerbate environmental degradation rather than mitigate it.

Amidst fervent debates and contested narratives, the fate of Nusantara hangs in the balance, poised between promises of progress and the spectre of unintended consequences. This unfolding saga underscores the complexities of urban development, environmental stewardship, and social justice, urging stakeholders to navigate a path forward that honours sustainability aspirations while safeguarding the rights and well-being of all affected communities.

In the discourse surrounding Indonesia's capital relocation, a nuanced dialogue emerges, shedding light on Jakarta's imperfections and the complexities of the ambitious relocation project. While acknowledging Jakarta's challenges, critics emphasise the urgency of addressing these issues regardless of the capital's move. However, proponents argue that relocating the capital offers a unique opportunity to comprehensively address these challenges while fostering economic decentralisation and environmental sustainability.

Navigating this discourse requires reconciling the tension between addressing Jakarta's woes and embracing the vision for Nusantara. While critics prioritize immediate solutions to Jakarta's challenges, proponents envision a transformative shift towards a more sustainable and equitable future. Ultimately, the success of Indonesia's capital relocation hinges on its ability to balance these competing priorities, forging a path forward that addresses Jakarta's deficiencies while realising the aspirations of the Nusantara project.

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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