When I was little, Idul Fitri was always one of the most fun days of the year, mostly because my entire extended family would all gather in one place to celebrate it. The minimum set would be 18 cousins, brothers and sisters, eight adults and the matriarch, my grandmother. As with a typical West Sumatran family, mine was all over the place and it always took quite an effort to move ourselves to a designated place.
That was about 20 years ago, when the nation’s population was around three-quarters of what it is today and urbanization was relatively limited. At the time, while the traffic might increase during the ritual homewards exodus, it never reached the extent we see today, where cars line up bumper to bumper, with swarms of motorcycles zigzagging wildly, mortally threatening everything in their paths, and where the length of a trip can be quadruple that of any other given day.
Yet these days, in the face of such an excursion nightmare, hundreds of thousands still mobilize themselves every single year. They are willing to wait in line for hours to get tickets; to be cramped in buses, trains and ships, many without air conditioning; to get completely stuck on the road; and to literally risk serious injuries — and even death — due to accidents.
Irrational? Actually we are observing quite rational behavior.
Individuals take action after considering the personal cost and benefit. For many of us, the cost of the annual trip home — which includes not only the actual fare but also the long hours, exhaustion and risks — is worth the benefit of celebrating Idul Fitri with family.
When said individuals bear all the cost and reap all the benefit themselves, then whatever they decide is their own business. The thing is, as we shall see, this is not the case with the annual exodus.
Every time an individual decides to take the long trip home, they add to the traffic jam, which in turn puts tremendous strain on the roads, which are built and maintained by our tax money, and inject tons of toxins and carbon into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and increasing global temperatures. Said individual would also significantly increase the risk of accidents, since with each additional bus, car or motorcycle on the street, the probability of collisions increases proportionately.
In 2008, the exodus saw more than 1,300 road accidents with more than 600 fatalities, all within a week, which constitutes about 100 deaths per day. Had this been due to a terrorist attack, drastic measures would have been taken. These costs are not incurred by the individual deciding to join the exodus bandwagon, but by innocent bystanders. And this is where the problem starts.
The additional costs of the annual exodus borne by other people are more commonly known as negative externalities. Exodus travelers only cover the cost of tickets, fares, gas, personal time and physical exhaustion, while the rest of us cover the cost of traffic jams, road damage, poisonous air, increased global temperatures and risk of fatalities.
In an ideal world, these externalities would be accounted for by travelers when they weigh up the cost and benefits of taking the trip home; unfortunately, in the real world they are not.
To address the problem, the real cost incurred by individuals joining the exodus must be increased, taking into account all the externalities. This can mean taxing tickets and fares, setting up temporary toll booths on major roads and even temporarily increasing gas price for several days before, during and after Idul Fitri. The additional revenue should then be channeled into road maintenance, clean air campaigns, and deployment of additional police personnel.
Now, you might protest because some people would then be unable to afford the trip home. Well actually that’s the entire point. Many people should decide that the cost — the true cost — of going home outweighs the benefits and choose to stay put. Thus we would have less poison in the air and fewer deaths. What is truly scandalous is the fact that not only the government — with our support — decides not to increase the personal cost of the Idul Fitri exodus, it actually decreases it by limiting hikes in ticket prices. Since the cost of travel is set considerably lower than it should be, there are significantly more people than there should be on the roads.
The idea that there should be less people taking the exodus is actually quite popular, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate ones who have ever experienced accidents on what is supposed to be a joyous occasion. In 2008, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) considered making the exodus makruh — an action that is divinely discouraged. Unfortunately, most people respond better to worldly incentive than divine sanctions.
I will not downplay the benefit of celebrating Idul Fitri with loved ones. Being able to share the love, joy and a sense of triumph after a month fasting with the people you call home is truly a blessing. But then again, is it worth 600 lives?
My extended family now numbers more than 50. Today we’ve made a conscious decision not to make it necessary anymore to have a big gathering during Idul Fitri. Again, this is a rational decision — the cost, and risk, of travel during the traffic peak of the year outweighs its benefit for us. So we celebrate the holiday in different places, making use of the wonder of today’s information technology to share our love and happiness with each other. We do, however, agree to have a family gathering four times a year, scheduled deliberately outside the annual exodus. And we always have as much fun as we did 20 years ago.
Rivandra Royono is the executive director of the Association for Critical Thinking and a consultant for the World Bank in Jakarta .