Jakarta Sinks as Jokowi Ascends: Will President Desert the Fortress of Batavia?

Jakarta is rapidly sinking and, in theory, soon being displaced as the capital city of Indonesia.  After his re-election as President, Joko Widodo and his cabinet have announced something that has often been mooted.  The Javanese metropolis – the most traffic-congested city on the planet – is no longer suitable as the seat of state.

Some experts believe parts of the city will be submerged by 2050, sinking as it is at up to 15cm every year. Built on marshland, the dubious stability of which is further compromised by the extraction of groundwater for civilian use, Jakarta’s fate looks doomed.

Scenes such as this flood are likely to become increasingly familiar for Jakarta’s citizens

It was the Dutch who set the scene for the leviathan of today.  In 1619 the Dutch East India Company established Batavia on the ruins of Jayakarta, having wrestled it from native control in their bid for a mercantile empire. Batavia became the seat of that empire, elegant Dutch buildings constructed on reclaimed marsh in an engineering feat reminiscent of the homeland.

For more than two centuries this was a purely commercial settlement.  Dutch traders used Batavia as their storehouse and trading hub for the luxurious goods of the Indies, the local population kept in check by force of arms and compliant Chinese immigrants.

City plan of elegant Batavia, 1780

Canals were dug and city walls raised.  But before long the call of the swampy hinterland grew stronger, the Dutch desperate to seize ever more control over the cash crops of the interior.  Batavia expanded and the environment suffered with it.

By the time the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt and was dissolved in 1800, Batavia had many of the characteristics of other colonial cities of the era.  The Dutch East Indies was duly proclaimed and, whilst trade still proliferated, the territory gradually became more of a Dutch settler state.

Dutch-built canal through Batavia

Gas works and street lighting appeared in the mid-19th century, telephone lines and electric trams soon to follow.  All the while the population expanded; native Javanese, Chinese immigrants, Dutch settlers and the mestizo offspring of colonial copulation. Batavia’s numbers had swelled to over 2 million by the start of the 20th century.

The Supreme Court building in colonial Batavia

Many rural Javanese migrated to Batavia as economic opportunities grew. With a rapidly increasing population and an infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with the influx of new settlers, poverty soared.  Unsanitary living conditions closer to the exposed marshland bred plague and other disease, cramped living quarters became the norm and crime rose.  These are issues that persist in modern Jakarta.

Whilst not without their faults, the Dutch colonial authorities did not enact the same sort of civilian co-option and repression seen in other European colonies.  An independence movement emerged in earnest through the 1920s – led by youth groups – which the Dutch did try to suppress.  However, the onset of the Second World War would be required to deliver the death knell to the Dutch Empire and allow subsequent Indonesian independence, by which time the megacity of Jakarta was already well-established.

Japan’s invasion of Indonesia in 1942 (Batavia fell in March) was, like most of its military actions, carried out in the divine name of Hirohito, their Emperor. Whilst the politicians and military leaders exercised real power in Tokyo, they invoked the Emperor’s godliness as a rallying call for their troops and the civilians forced to sacrifice so much at home.

Emperor Hirohito

It was only after Japan’s humiliating defeat at the end of the war that Hirohito publicly renounced his divine status and this week his son, Emperor Akihito, abdicated in an unprecedented public display.

Things have changed in Japan.  The Emperor is revered for his humility not his divine aloofness.

In Jakarta – the capital of the free and independent Indonesian people – the change is one of alarming consistency.  Over-populated, under-resourced, subsiding into oblivion.  The disparate people of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands have often grumbled at the disproportionate influence wielded by the Javanese, resting as it is on the symbolism and economic might of its former Dutch citadel.

President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi

If ever there was an apt moment to change this – and Palangkaraya on Borneo is the favoured location for the new capital – it surely must be now.  Whether Jokowi’s government feel they have the political will at the start of a new five year term to take this prodigious step will soon be determined.