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Capital Relocation: Kalimantan, the Future of Indonesia

Jakarta is overpopulated, polluted and sinking. The Indonesian government is planning to relocate the administrative centre to the less densely populated island of Kalimantan, but what should we know about the new capital?

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Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, is overpopulated, polluted and sinking. Its status as the capital city is soon to be taken over by a new city in East Kalimantan province near the cities of Samarinda and Balikpapan. 

President Joko Widodo announced the relocation in August last year, citing reasons of addressing inequality and relieving some of the burden on Java – an island one-quarter the size of the island of Kalimantan (which is also called Borneo) – but currently housing 60 per cent of the country’s population. Another major factor is the strategic location of Kalimantan, which is a much more central island in the archipelago than Java.

The government plans to begin construction of the new city from 2021 and may start relocating some offices from 2024, according to the planning minister Bambang Brodjonegoro. 

However, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said in April that Indonesia’s investment in this mega project to relocate its capital city has been put on hold to reallocate most of the funds for the Covid-19 outbreak response, but the programme may resume next year.

Nevertheless, this new capital not only represents the future of Indonesia, but it also possesses the glory of the nation’s past. 

East Kalimantan’s ancient past

The area within the districts of Kutai Kartanegara and Penajam Paser Utara has been chosen as the location for the new capital city of Indonesia. 

What is not often known is that the area also boasts a long and rich history, having been the place where one of the earliest ancient kingdoms in the archipelago once stood. 

Established around 400 AD, Kutai Martadipura was a Hindu kingdom led by Maharaja Kudungga, who was presumably of local Dayak origin. The legacy of the kingdom was found in Kutai, Kaman Estuary, near the Mahakam River in the form of seven stone pillars called Yupa inscribed in the Pallava script of India. From the inscriptions, the names of three rulers are known: Kudungga, his son Aswawarman, and his grandson Mulavarman. 

The Museum of Mulawarman in East Kalimantan. | Photo Credit: Jaka Thariq

Around the end of the 13th century, another kingdom, Kutai Kartanegara, was established in the region of Tepian Batu or Kutai Lama. Aji Pangeran Sinum Panji Mendapa, who ruled between 1635 and 1650, conquered Kutai Martadipura and merged the two into the kingdom of Kutai Kartanegara ing Martadipura. 

North Kalimantan Governor Dr Irianto Lambrie said during the Asia Competitive Institute Annual Conference in November 2019 that this long history of East Kalimantan makes it the “right” location for the new capital, adding: “Kalimantan is the future of Indonesia.”

The governor, who had pursued his career in East Kalimantan for 32 years, claimed that “the people of Kalimantan are very loyal to the Republic of Indonesia”.

What do the people say?

The Kutai Kartanegara district, like the rest of Indonesia, has a diverse population of about 780,000 people that consists of the native Kutai, Benuaq, Tunjung, Bahau, Modang, Kenyah, Punan and Kayan ethnic groups as well as Java, Bugis, Banjar, Madura, Buton, Timor and other immigrant ethnic groups. 

Meanwhile, with a population of 160,000 people, the Penajam Paser Utara district has thousands of Paser Balik and Dayak people living in it which identify themselves as two distinctive tribes.

Gawai Dayak Festival in Borneo: Where to Celebrate
The indigenous Dayak people in East Kalimantan. | Photo Credit: Barry Kusuma|Getty Images

In an interview with CNA, Mr Eko Supriadi – a traditional youth leader of Penajam Paser Utara – said he welcomed the plan to move the capital to East Kalimantan but has reservations about whether the government has plans to protect the existence of the indigenous people, who fear being further marginalised with the new development. 

East Kalimantan was a popular destination for transmigration, with about one million transmigrants out of the 3.5 million population, according to a 2010 census. 

Jokowi’s government has recently reintroduced a new concept of transmigration, stipulated in the 2020-2024 Medium-Term National Development Plan (RPJMN). 

It will develop 52 transmigration sites into new cities, showing the government’s plan to redistribute economic activities from the densely populated Java and Bali to the less populated Papua, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Nusa Tenggara. 

Despite the government’s ambition, the transmigration programme and the capital relocation plan prove to elicit mixed feelings among the local East Kalimantan people. 

Head of Paser Balik tribe Mr Sikbukdin, 56, claimed the tribe people were marginalised as schools were built closer to the transmigrants’ homes instead of the forest where they live, depriving them of education opportunities. Others have also pointed out the absurdity of the government taking back the land that had been given to them (as part of the earlier transmigration program) to make room for the new capital. 

Nevertheless, the governor of East Kalimantan, Isran Noor, has assured that the government would not neglect the indigenous communities, promising to take their views into account as “a meaningful input for the government”.

“They won’t be marginalised. They need to develop their capabilities, so they can participate in building the country,” he was reported saying to CNA. 

Conservationists are also concerned about the environmental destruction that might be worsened by the proposed relocation, more than what has already been caused by the logging and mining companies over the years.

However, Mr Bambang Brodjonegoro was reported in the South China Morning Post saying: “We will not disturb any existing protected forest, instead we will rehabilitate it.”

Why it is the ideal location?

The area for Indonesia’s future capital in East Kalimantan. | Photo Credit: Credit: President Joko Widodo/Twitter

Despite being the second-largest island of the archipelagic country and home to some of the world’s biggest coal reserves, Kalimantan Island only contributes 8.2 per cent of the nation’s GDP. 

It is hoped that the relocation of capital, as well as the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), will reduce the development inequality between Java and other islands of Indonesia.

President Joko Widodo said in a televised speech: “The location (of the new capital) is very strategic – it’s in the centre of Indonesia and close to urban areas.” The proposed area is also less prone to disasters such as earthquakes, floods, forest fires, landslides and eruption. 

The fact that these two districts are easily accessible and disaster-proof makes them the ideal choice for the new political and administrative centre of Indonesia. 

This is of course in stark contrast with the current situation in Jakarta.

One major problem with the current capital of Indonesia is the dramatic rate at which Jakarta is sinking. It is one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world, and the impact is immediately apparent in North Jakarta. 

This is happening partly due to the excessive extraction of groundwater for everyday purposes by city dwellers. Some social media users have also criticised the Indonesian government for not doing enough about climate change

Flash floods in Jakarta. | Photo Credit: Mast Irham/Shutterstock

Besides that, the city of Jakarta has a very high population density of 14,464 square kilometres according to the World Population Review, meaning that it is about twice as densely populated as Singapore. This has led to its notorious traffic congestion, making Jakarta the 12th most congested city in the world. 

Is Jakarta being abandoned?

Not quite. 

The capital relocation is meant to ease the overwhelming burden on Jakarta, but Jakarta will remain the nation’s commercial and financial centre, much like New York City in the United States. 

Many Jakarta residents felt that the city will continue to play an important role and complement the new capital, for Jakarta is not merely the nation’s administrative capital, but also the centre of economy, education institutions and culture.

In order to avoid repeating the same mistakes in managing Jakarta, Indonesia has selected McKinsey & Company to conduct a feasibility study on the proposed site for the new capital in East Kalimantan, according to a report by Reuters. McKinsey Indonesia will take on the government’s initial studies on issues including the social, cultural, environmental and economic impact, said Rudy Soeprihadi Prawiradinata, deputy for regional development at Indonesia’s Planning Ministry. Mr Bambang Brodjonegoro said: “We want to have a capital that represents the nation’s identity and improves the efficiency of the central government and establish a smart, green and beautiful city.”

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