Slums in Jakarta: Where Needs of the Poor Mismatch the Needs of the City

By webadmin on 01:29 pm Mar 29, 2011
Category Archive

Taufik R. Indrakesuma

As Indonesia trudges along the path of economic development, one seemingly inevitable consequence has been rising inequality. Economic growth has not been the “rising tide that lifts all ships” that it was once thought to be. Policy makers now find themselves trying to juggle growth and equity in many areas.

One particularly difficult case is that of Jakarta’s slums. Jakarta’s growth as both the nation’s capital and primary center of business has been accompanied by waves of new, mostly poor, arrivals. Rapid urbanization has created problems of land and housing scarcity, and as these scarcities increase and housing prices rise, economic constraints force the poor to inhabit land that no one else wants.

The result? Just follow any back alley in Jakarta’s periphery and odds are good you will end up in a poor kampung. Or look out the window while riding the commuter trains and you will see dilapidated, makeshift shacks sandwiching the tracks.

Reports by the UN Human Settlements Program estimate that 26 percent of Indonesia’s urban population lives in slums, with more than five million slum dwellers in Greater Jakarta alone.

The first problem is one of physical dimensions. As slums are self-constructed by people with severe resource limitations, the dwellings lack the amenities that most people would consider basic. Actual physical conditions vary, but lack of access to water, sanitation or electricity is quite a common feature. Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) shows that in 2009, only 35 percent of Jakarta’s homes had access to potable water, and 32 percent of homes had a per capita living space of less than seven square meters.

The second dimension of the problem further complicates things: Many of Jakarta’s slums are illegal. Many slum dwellers are actually squatting on state land, which creates a hostile relationship between slum dwellers and authorities. The constant threat of demolition and eviction gives these citizens no incentive to invest in infrastructure.

A final dimension concerns the city as a whole. Simply put, slums are pimples on the face of the city. They are ugly locales that are associated with concentrations of poor people, crime and overall social undesirability. As a result, other citizens are driven away and land values plummet. Any city that aspires to be a global city would see the prevalence of slums as a threat to its international image.

Faced with this situation, what should the Jakarta government do?

The draft of Jakarta’s 2010-2030 master plan and government interventions over the years indicate a preference for public housing projects. This kind of plan typically involves demolishing slums and moving the inhabitants to high-rise public housing estates, which come equipped with running water, proper sanitation and electricity, at low rental rates.

At a glance, this policy helps the poor attain a better standard of living. However, the unspoken beneficiary of this policy is actually the city government. The main benefit of slum clearance is the ability to clean up the city by removing these ugly patches of land. This is coupled with the public housing plan that moves the poor further outside the city center where they are, as they say, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Additionally, this policy is not fully beneficial to the poor. Relocation instead becomes displacement. These people are pushed further away from their workplaces and centers of economic activity. New expenses in the form of higher transportation costs and rental payments also add burdens that may be too much to bear. Thus, although they gain access to better quality housing, there are significant trade-offs involved.

Assessing the efficacy of public housing is also made more difficult by the varying degrees of success globally. Singapore, for example, has had a largely successful public housing program. The United States, however, has seen its public housing estates turn into new slums, where social undesirability remains. Are there any other choices?

Some UN reports have recommended upgrading slums through infrastructure development. This allows for improvement of living conditions in the slums without the negative effects of displacement.

This may work well for kampung slums with clear land ownership. However, we run into a problem when dealing with slums that were built illegally. Upgrading illegal slums is essentially a concession of legal land use rights to the squatters. Pandering to these squatters also becomes an incentive for future slum creation. This is an extreme option where slum dwellers benefit while the city loses out.

At the other extreme is the approach of clearing illegal slums without relocation. Help can be channeled to the poor in general through other programs, such as welfare payments or subsidies, but no sympathy or assistance would be offered to illegal squatters in particular.

This approach seems inappropriate, but it has its merits. Demolishing illegal slums would send a message against illegal habitation of land and would act as a disincentive for future squatters. It would also act as an incentive for illegal slum dwellers to return to their villages, where quality of life is easier to sustain. In the long run, urban growth would become more manageable, circumventing the problem of slums. Here, the city benefits, although slum dwellers do not.

Are any of these solutions correct? Is there a single right answer? This spectrum of alternatives makes it clear that juggling the interests of the poor on the one hand and those of the city on the other is difficult. In the end, it becomes a question of ideological stance, and this is where the general public needs to have a say. Do Jakartans think that global city ambitions can justify the displacement of the poor? Are Jakartans prepared to accept these slums as a permanent fixture of the city landscape? With a gubernatorial election coming up in 2012, this is one issue that Jakarta needs to get right.

Taufik Ramadhan Indrakesuma is a postgraduate student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.