Jakarta: life in a city where social justice rings hollow (1)


Private opulence amid public squalor was how the influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith described the conspicuous consumption of the American public over 40 years ago. But his words resonate very strongly in today’s Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital city, which is home to over 10 million people.

Not a place for the faint hearted, the city is the melting pot for some 300 plus ethnic groups, a fascinating mix of extremes, where huge marble floored townhouses are situated only a stone’s throw away from densely populated poverty-ridden slums, and where luxurious Mercedes-Benz automobiles drive bumper-to-bumper with noisy, rust-eaten motorcycle taxis, called bajaj. The level of inequality here is such that it would take someone earning the monthly minimum wage in Jakarta (972,000 Indonesian rupiah, which is around 108 U.S. dollars: year 2008) an incredible 86 years to buy the cheapest Mercedes model even if they saved their entire income over that time!

In previous centuries Jakarta was a green city. The Dutch captured Jakarta in 1619 and renamed it Batavia. It then became the main port of the Dutch colonialists and was the capital of the Netherlands East Indies. However, the green appearance of the city changed at the end of the eighteenth century when Batavia, more and more overcrowded and plagued by malaria, turned into a human graveyard. More recently, rapid urbanization has resulted in a massive increase in Jakarta’s population. The city acts as a magnet to the rural poor, who fed up with the lack of job opportunities in the countryside, see little alternative but to try their luck in Jakarta. At the same time, the Betawi - the indigenous people of the Jakarta area - have been pushed out toward the fringes of the city as the cost of living and land prices escalate.

Today, gleaming skyscrapers and swank five-star hotels dominate Jakarta’s central business district, otherwise known as the golden triangle due to the confluence of the city’s three main thoroughfares. And in other parts of the city, luxurious apartment complexes and shopping malls are popping up like mushrooms.

However, you don’t have to look far to see that many parts of Jakarta have been left far behind in the development stakes: filthy canals give off the most unpleasant smells imaginable while ancient public buses belch out huge plumes of black smoke behind them as they traverse the often-jammed pot-holed streets that flood during the rainy season. At the same time, many government schools are in a terrible state of disrepair. It has even been known for roofs to cave in while students have been studying! And follow the narrow twisting alleys that branch off the bigger roads, and you will enter into a claustrophobic world of human misery where people are packed into tiny shacks like sardines in a tin. Welcome to Jakarta’s hidden slums.

slums by Ciliwung river Jakarta

This state of affairs gives rise to the obvious question: why does the development of a city like Jakarta not lead to an improvement in the lives of the people who live there? After all, very few of Jakarta’s residents could afford to stay in a plush five star hotel, for example, whereas many would benefit from a cleaner environment, good public transportation, better schools & hospitals and decent housing.

Click here to read part two


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