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As a capital sinks, doubts over its appeal rise

Indonesians continue to seek better lives in Jakarta even though a new city that may replace it is taking shape

Updated: 2024-06-04 09:53
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Editor's note: In this new weekly feature China Daily gives voice to Asia and its people. The stories presented will come mainly from the Asia News Network (ANN), and of which China Daily is among the 20 members.

A man living by the railway tracks cleans bird cages in Jakarta on May 12. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP

Just how much cachet does a city gain — or stand to lose — by being its country's capital city? Jakarta, Indonesia's capital for the past 79 years, may be about to find out.

Five years ago it was announced that, partly because the country's capital is gradually sinking into the Java Sea, it would be moved to a new city, to be called Nusantara, in East Kalimantan Province on the island of Borneo.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo in April signed into law measures on the special region of Jakarta detailing the process by which capital city status will be transferred from Jakarta to Nusantara, something that will require a presidential signature for it to go ahead.

Nevertheless, the huge question marks hanging over Jakarta's future do not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of migrant Indonesians to flock to the city looking for a better life, just as they have done for decades.

Indonesians refer to the practice of leaving one's home for a faraway place as merantau (migration), and those who do so as perantau (migrants), one of them being Hopi Islami, 24, a native of Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, who graduated from a private university in the royal city of Yogyakarta last year.

She planned to seek a job as a copywriter in Jakarta last month, she said.

"I want to start a career in Jakarta considering there are many companies in the creative industry sector and job vacancies," the Jakarta Post quoted Hopi as saying.

"I think Jakarta is the right place, even though it's not that easy to get a job there."

Even though Jakarta faces losing its status as the national capital, Hopi said, as long as it still officially holds the title, people will go there.

Someone else intent on seeking a better life in Jakarta is Sarnah, 39, after leaving her job as a farmer in Lampung Province.

A junior high school graduate, she followed her sister-in-law, Salmiyati, 43, who opened a food stall in Palmerah, West Jakarta, at the end of 2022.

"My sister invited me to work in Jakarta, so I simply followed to help her run the food stall," she said, adding that she hopes to work in Jakarta for a long time.

Many people living outside the capital believe they have a better chance of making a good living in Jakarta than elsewhere.

Sudirman, 54, at Pasar Senen Station in Central Jakarta after a five-hour train ride from Purwokerto, Central Java, said he first came to Jakarta because the city offered good opportunities for a skilled driver.

The high school graduate said he has been employed as a driver in the city for seven years and now works as a private driver for a corporate executive living in Pondok Indah, South Jakarta.

However, unlike Salmiyati, Sudirman did not bring any relatives from his hometown to what Indonesians affectionately call the Big Durian.

Decreasing arrivals

People who have found work in Jakarta often bring additional family members or friends when returning to the city after their annual Eid al-Fitr.

The Jakarta administration has repeatedly discouraged returning residents from doing so, pointing to the city's high unemployment and its overpopulation. The city has a population in excess of 11 million.

The head of the Jakarta Civil Registration Agency, Budi Awaluddin, estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 newcomers would move to Jakarta after Eid al-Fitr. The agency says it recorded 25,918 new arrivals last year.

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, more than 113,814 people moved to Jakarta. In 2021, the number rose to 139,700, and in 2022, when the pandemic showed signs of easing, the number of arrivals rose to 151,755.

"Year after year, to this day, Jakarta has been the center of urbanization, with people searching for better lives," Budi said. "But not everyone who comes to Jakarta can be as lucky as those in the success stories they hear."

He advised people who wanted to come to Jakarta to prepare themselves with skills, a job and a place to live, the agency's figures showing that last year 84 percent of new arrivals after Eid al-Fitr had a high school education or lower.

About 62.3 percent of the total new arrivals were in the low-income group.

"In reality, many people from outside Jakarta become unemployed when they arrive here," Budi said. "Many of them even live in slums with inadequate living conditions."

At least 11.3 million people live in the 661.5-square-kilometer city, the agency said, which means an average of about 17,000 people living in every square kilometer.

Gaining ground

The Executive Director of the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance, Tauhid Ahmad, attributed this year's decline in Jakarta's estimated new arrivals to improved economic growth in other cities, such as Surabaya, East Java; Medan, North Sumatra; and Karawang and Bekasi in West Java.

With the new capital city project the number of newcomers to Jakarta will fall further because they fill job vacancies in the service sector and public service, Tauhid said.

The high unemployment rate in Jakarta, exceeding the nationwide figure, has added to the decline in interest in seeking opportunities in the capital, he said.

The unemployment rate in Jakarta was 6.53 percent last year, with about 354,000 unemployed, down 0.65 percent from the year before, Statistics Indonesia said.

The national unemployment rate fell 0.54 percent last year to 5.32 percent compared with 2022, meaning there were 7.86 million unemployed in a country of 279 million people.

"As economic growth continues to expand, Jakarta is no longer the main destination to seek a better life," Tauhid said.


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