Opinion

‘Surfing’, ‘Bowling’
and other deadly games

Surfing” has many meanings. In the good ol’ Beachboy days, it just meant riding the waves on a surfboard. After the World Wide Web (WWW) was invented in November 1990 and the Internet exploded into our lives, it also came to mean browsing online.

Now the term is also used in Indonesia for people who ride train rooftops. These are “train surfers” or “atapers” (roofers), as they call themselves.

Why do they do it? Are they inspired by Indian heartthrob, Shah Rukh Khan, who sings the mega-popular song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” on top of a moving train? (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOYN9qNXmAw). If only.

In fact, most train surfers in Indonesia (and India) don’t do it by choice, but simply because the carriages are too full. Others are poor and want to avoid paying for a ticket.

There are, however, some who, like Khan, do it because they think it’s fun. In fact, there are now believed to be at least 19 “ataper” organizations in Indonesia.

Perhaps this is not all that surprising. After all, people all over the world regularly choose to take part in death-defying activities, just for thrills — car racing, parachuting, cliff-diving. So, why not train-surfing? I just feel sorry for those forced to do so against their will by poverty or the sardine-can conditions in our dilapidated trains.

Train surfing is not a new practice and it’s hardly exclusive to Indonesia but it recently gained a lot of public attention when the state-run train company PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI) decided to counter them with a new game: “train bowling”!

Well, it’s actually more like “ataper bowling”. PT KAI is installing rows of concrete balls that will hang down to a point just above the roof of the train, with the sole purpose of knocking off (sic!) “atapers”.

Talk about … er … overkill. In fact, PT KAI’s bowling balls are downright murderous. No wonder rights groups are indignant. Ifdhal Kasim, chairman of the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) said, “This shortcut measure shows the laziness of the bureaucracy and puts many lives at risk.” In most countries, governments try to make public transport safer – only in Indonesia do they want it to be more dangerous.

The bottom line is that Indonesia is now imposing the death penalty for incorrect train travel, targeting poor people and thrill-seekers. Previously, PT KAI tried barbed wire, spraying passengers with colored water and greasing the rooftops — nasty, but surely better than killing people? So much for claims that we are now a nation that respects basic human rights. Why not just bar the train from leaving the station until the “atapers” get off? Or better still, how about adding more carriages?

And targeting “atapers” ignores the real problem, which, as usual, is about the state failing to provide basic services. According to Suryono Herlambang, an urban planner at Tarumanagara University, the government talks about building multi-million dollar transit systems, but doesn’t have the political will to take the relatively easy step of increasing train services between Jakarta and the suburbs. How ironic, given the train network between Jakarta, Bekasi, Bogor and Tangerang already exists — it’s just a matter of improving it.

With more than 27 million people living in Jakarta and its sprawling suburbs, there’s a lot of commuting going on. And as long as the trains are overcrowded, the “atapers” won’t be giving up their roof-riding ways any time soon.

This government’s inefficient and ineffective approach can also be seen in other areas related to public transportation, for example the pressing need to cut back fuel subsidy budget allocations (explained clearly by Vincent Lingga in the Sunday Post editorial, TJP, Jan. 22, 2012, page 4). The proposed solution of fuel-to-gas conversion for automobiles is fraught with technical difficulties, besides, who pays for the converter kits? Not the government! They’ll end up suddenly raising fuel prices anyway, which is what they should have done ages ago.

Then there’s Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport: Another time-bomb ticking away. On April 16, 2007, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) stated that Indonesian aviation “... does not comply with international safety standards set by the ICAO” but by 2010 Soekarno-Hatta had become the world’s 13th busiest airport.

The problems are multitudinous but are mainly about overcapacity. The airport was built for 18 million passengers per year but had over 44 million in 2010. Parking space for the planes is insufficient. There is old infrastructure; airstrip overload; inadequate human resources (only 160 when 400 people are needed); and imprecise standard operating procedures (SOPs). Systems designed to accommodate 500 plane movements are now dealing with 2000; and pilots and aviation operators are severely stressed. The old and substandard Air Traffic Control Services (ATS) could cause delays and worse, plane crashes.

So, what do the authorities do? Starting this year, flights delayed by four hours have to pay Rp 300,000 compensation to each passenger. At least this measure is not as deadly as KIA’s concrete balls, but it could bleed airlines dry because the system intrinsically creates delay, regardless of anything airlines can do.

And the political implications of Indonesia’s public transport messes are no less worrying than the practical ones. Too often, the solutions proposed are not people-friendly. In fact, they seem utterly contemptuous of human life.

Sadly, they smack of the New Order mentality that is fast sneaking back into Indonesia’s reform — including now on our buses, trains and planes.

The writer (www.juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of Julia’s Jihad.

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