The Jakarta Post
In recent comments regarding Jakarta's perennial flooding woes the Deputy Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama reiterated a position that has become something of a hallmark of his so-called 'firm' style. Referring to crowded informal settlements, or kampung, along the banks of the city's rivers and dams as a major contributor to flooding, Ahok stated he was ready to 'eradicate' them without hesitation.
Claims by kampung residents that eviction was a violation of human rights were in his words 'hamburger'. Human rights are known by the acronym HAM.
'I'll happily accept being called the biggest human rights violator in the world' he stated, 'if it's in the interests of the majority'. According to Ahok it was a straightforward choice, either concede to misconstrued demands for human rights or exercise the government's mandate to do what was necessary in the interests of the public good.
The contention that human rights impede development is by no means a new one in Indonesia, and was a cornerstone of New Order political rhetoric. The classic trade-off touted by the former regime was that human and political rights needed to be sidelined in the interests of the 'greater good', by which was meant its program of economic cronyism and the 'stability' of political authoritarianism.
The entrenched corruption, nepotism and brutality of the regime, together with the financial crisis of 1997 that undermined any remnants of its economic credentials, resulted in waves of opposition that eventually forced Soeharto to step down.
Yet the idea that human rights are an impediment to an orderly city and nation has persisted. It's heard not only from politicians with New Order pedigrees, but also amongst the politically conservative middle class frequenting the malls and living within gated estates. Many have channeled this sentiment into enthusiastic support for Governor Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo and his deputy who they see as bringers of 'order' to Jakarta's streets.
This is underpinned by a view of the poor inculcated throughout the New Order as lawless, disorderly and ultimately the cause of problems such as flooding, crime and traffic congestion. As such, they require a firm disciplining hand that prioritizes adherence to rules over rights.
Yet the 'rule of law' is often more the enemy of the poor than friend. Jakarta's public order laws criminalize informal street trading, the lifeblood of the kampung economy. This is particularly so in relation to security of housing.
Indonesia's land tenure regulations are notoriously complex, the outcome of which is a system riddled with corruption. Huge backlogs of disputes are often resolved via payoffs, bribes or political pressure rather than adherence to any clear legal principle.
The ability of the poor to obtain tenure security is thus nigh impossible. This makes somewhat disingenuous statements by Ahok that kampung dwellers are engaging in illegal activity by inhabiting government owned land. For most there are few other options. It also ignores a staggering fact that nationally 80 percent of housing is informal or self-help based. The poor's 'illegality' is structurally determined.
Historically public housing has been a low priority for successive Jakarta administrations. That Jakarta has the dubious honor of possessing the highest number of malls of any city in the world is indicative of the interests that have dominated its spatial politics.
The majority of kampung dwellers have semi-formal or informal tenure arrangements often involving complex negotiations and deals with local officials, land brokers and gangsters. When central government policies shift or local commercial arrangements change what was perceived as secure housing can quickly transform into insecurity, eviction and even homelessness.
An example is the recently evicted Taman Burung neighborhood in Pluit, deemed 'illegal' by the current city administration despite having been provided with state infrastructure and paying building tax.
Rights to adequate housing are clearly outlined in the Constitution and international conventions to which Indonesia is a signatory. For kampung residents displaced under the current Jokowi administration it is not just an issue of rights, but of broken promises.
Prior to the 2012 elections for governor, Jokowi and Ahok campaigned hard in districts with a high percentage of poor residents, such as Penjaringan in North Jakarta. The city's poor have historically had high levels of non-participation in elections. In part this is due to an aversion to institutional politics and a perception that the outcome makes little difference to their conditions.
A political contract was signed with the residents of Pluit Dam and Muara Baru in Penjaringan that if elected land certificates would be granted to kampung in existence for 20 years or more, effectively legalizing 'illegal' communities. Kampung would also undergo revitalization.
This was what poor residents had longed to hear; a commitment to concrete recognition of their rights to a secure home and investment in kampung as sustainable communities. Subsequently many mobilized to vote. In Penjaringan, Jokowi and Ahok won with over 70 percent, the largest majority of any district in the city.
Once in power, however talk of legalizing or revitalizing kampung disappeared. A more familiar policy approach materialized in which the urban poor, lacking the protection of legality, must make way for the 'greater good'. Kampung surrounding Pluit Dam were demolished and some residents offered relocation in the interests of 'normalizing' the dams function and increasing green space. Residents demanding compensation were labeled 'communists' by Ahok, those refusing relocation as 'poor who don't know their place'.
According to the Jakarta Residents Forum (FAKTA) over 19,000 people were evicted by the administration in 2013. Less than 40 percent were offered alternative accommodation, in the form of rental apartments often far from places of work and school. Commercial interests of the city's elites however have remained shielded by capital, insider lobbying and the legal system itself. Malls, luxury apartments and housing estates that violate the city's green zone regulations and contribute significantly to flooding, including in Pluit, have to date been untouched by the administration's policy interventions. Significant degrees of political expediency and compromise prevail.
The post-election shift by Jokowi points to the political economy of interests shaping and constraining policy responses to Jakarta's key infrastructural problems. It is also a reminder of the real limits of the city government's power.
The expectation of key political constituencies such as the conspicuously consumptive middle-class that the new city government will get things done quickly helps to explain high profile projects such as Pluit Dam and the relocation of street traders in Tanah Abang. Both conform to established images of government efficiency and resolve. This has helped to consolidate the governments' status in particular that of the governor, considered a front-runner for the presidency, while masking the reluctance or unwillingness to engage in political battles where the outcomes are far less certain.
By maintaining the poor as a primary object of policies aimed at solving complex problems such as flooding and traffic congestion, the perception that the poor are to blame remains unchallenged. This undermines the legitimacy of demands for rights to a secure place and reproduces inequalities which find material form in the city's public infrastructure, or the absence of it.
The writer is a lecturer and Research Fellow at the Asia Research Center, Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.
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