Sun, 23 Jun 2002

Jakarta, city of of unemployed and brave

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Life in any city can be mad, but perhaps it is the maddest of all in Jakarta.

"It is no longer nice to live here," says Irawan, a 43-year- old employee who was born in the capital.

Many of the millions of Jakarta inhabitants can identify with Irawan. Like many residents, Irawan has to endure sitting in a cramped public bus on the way to his office on Jl. Jend. Sudirman in Central Jakarta from his house in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, six days a week.

The 10-kilometer trip by bus, from which black exhaust fumes invariably spew, takes more than an hour in choked traffic. The daily ordeal has probably dimmed whatever trace of affection he may have once felt for the city.

"I no longer feel I belong here," said Irawan, whose parents moved here from Tulungagung in East Java in the 1920s.

On its 475th anniversary on Saturday, it was sad to realize that many of Jakarta's residents do not consider it home.

Jakarta, since its official establishment on June 22, 1527 (according to A. Heuken SJ in Historical Sites of Jakarta), has always been a cultural melting pot.

It was on this date that Fatahillah, a sultan, renamed the city Sunda Kelapa, which was previously called Jayakarta, meaning complete victory.

Fatahillah was celebrating his double victory over the soldiers of Hindu Sunda and their Portuguese allies.

But a mature age, it seems, does not mean wisdom as far as Jakarta is concerned. The city is suffering from numerous ailments, ranging from mismanagement to inferior public services.

Along its streets, run-down public buses, minibuses and minivans are most visible. According to 2000 data, there are 5,411 buses, 4,981 minibuses and 11,848 minivans to cater to millions of commuters.

The absence of an efficient mass rapid transportation system, either above or underground, is the main reason why millions of Jakarta residents find getting around such an ordeal.

From inside their packed and uncomfortable vehicles, they can see luxury cars passing by, carrying the more privileged.

Lina Kartika, a housewife in Pejompongan, Central Jakarta, says development in the city caters only to the rich. She points out that is for the rich that the upscale apartments, upmarket hospitals, malls and cafes are built, often on designated green areas.

A large portion of the population cannot identify with these shining symbols of modernity. Footpaths are generally found only in upmarket residential areas like Menteng in Central Jakarta.

Besides bad public transportation, Jakarta faces many other ills.

Residents in Bekasi still remember the bad smell permeating their neighborhoods, where rotting garbage piled up for weeks.

The misfortune stemmed from a dispute between the city administration and the Bekasi mayoralty over Bantar Gebang garbage dump.

The central government was forced to intervene in the matter and the dumping of Jakarta's 25,000 cubic meters of daily garbage resumed.

Jakarta is notorious for its poor public facilities and services. Its population increase, from half a million in 1935 to more than seven million today, has not been followed by an improvement in public services.

The city also discriminates.

Eviction is a common occurrence. The poor endure eviction after eviction year round on the grounds that they disrupt public order. The administration seems oblivious to the fact that the scourge of poverty is the root of the problem.

A yearly migration of some 200,000 people, who mostly come from Java in search of a better life, contributes to the growth in poverty in the city.

Jakarta, which has the highest rupiah circulation in the country, offers more economic opportunities compared to other cities. Most big businesses are run from this coastal capital city. Many migrants come here dreaming of getting a slice of the pie, but for most that's all it remains, a dream.

Jakarta dates back to the early 14th century when it was called Sunda Kelapa, a trading center and one of the biggest international seaports in the world.

Like a magnet, the city constantly draws people to it, particularly job seekers. Often the number of job seekers exceeds employment opportunities, thus leaving many unemployed.

The city administration, under several governors, has repeated failed to deal with the problem.

Those who fail to get a job end up in the informal business sector, working as street vendors for example, while others resort to begging on the streets.

The official figure for the city's poor amounts to 100,000, but many doubt the figure. The Urban Poor Consortium believes the actual number is at least four times the figure.

The city's escalating crime rate can undoubtedly be attributed to poverty.

Jakartans could be considered courageous because they constantly face the possibility of falling victim to crime, even in their own homes.

According to police data, an average of 21 armed robberies took place every week in 2001. Some of the victims were critically injured.

About 12 cars and motorcycles were stolen weekly and two dead bodies with stabbed wounds were found every week last year.

Most crimes occurred in public places, like on the street, on public buses, at bus terminals, intersections and shopping malls.

And as from a few years back, a new crime now puts fear in people's hearts: regular bomb blasts.

This is in contrast to the more traditional, but no less feared, enemy: the yearly floods.

A huge flood inundated many parts of Jakarta for weeks in January and February, causing losses of Rp 85 billion (US$10 million). Forty percent of Jakarta's 660,000 hectares was swamped with floodwater.

The administration's failure to deal with the flood, and other urban problems, is something of an irony as most of the country's wealthy and well-educated people live here as well as top politicians and central government officials.

Their apparent ignorance of, or disinterest in, the city's problems is difficult to comprehend.

However, it may explain why the city cannot take pride in being an ideal home for all its residents even though it has reached the ripe old age of 475.