Moving Indonesia’s capital to one of the archipelago’s outlying islands has been talked about since the early days of independence, but President Joko Widodo has taken the conversation to a different level with a new US$33 billion plan reportedly to be implemented over the next 10-15 years.

Whether it will go ahead, as with previous designs, remains very much up in the air. The government still has to settle on a new location and critics say the move will do nothing to solve Jakarta’s many problems, all of them more associated with its position as a commercial and economic hub than as an administrative center.

Only an estimated 140,000 of the 17 million registered motor vehicles in the traffic-choked city belong to government ministries and agencies. Civil servants, meanwhile, account for only 9% of the metropolitan area’s 10 million-strong population.

Shifting the capital would also leave Jakarta with its perennial flood problems, most of them due to the run-off from the built-over watershed to the south, and municipal authorities will still be faced with the urgent task of preventing the heavily-populated northern suburbs from sinking below sea level.

Officials say Widodo revived the issue at a limited Cabinet meeting six months ago, directing the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) to come up with a range of options to move the capital away from the main island of Java, home to 53% of Indonesia’s population.

FILE PHOTO - Vehicles are caught in a traffic jam in Jakarta February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Beawiharta/File Photo
A file photo of a traffic jam in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

During the April 17 presidential election campaign, Widodo promised to re-balance the geographical distribution of economic growth. Current figures show Java contributing to about 58% of gross domestic product (GDP), ahead of Sumatra (21.7%), Kalimantan (8.2%) and Sulawesi (6.1%). At 7.6%, only Sulawesi has a higher annual growth rate than Java’s 5.6% — the only two regions higher than the national 5.1% GDP rate.

The electoral outcome revealed much sharper religious and ethnic divisions in a country whose reputation for unity and tolerance has undergone a battering over the past decade, and may have given the re-location plan fresh political impetus.

Apart from heavy support in East and Central Java and among minorities on the eastern Indonesian islands, the incumbent president was beaten by opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto in conservative West Java and in a majority of the provinces on Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

Looking to other capital transplant precedents, officials point to the Australian capital of Canberra, established between Sydney and Melbourne in 1913, Brasilia, Brazil’s tailor-made capital inaugurated in 1960, and Myanmar’s now decade-old Naypyitaw, located 370 kilometers north of the old capital of Yangon.

Indonesia’s National Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro says the new capital will have to be situated roughly in the center of the country, have enough potable water and be largely safe from natural disasters, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and flooding – a tall order anywhere in seismically volatile Indonesia.

Parliament House at Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, one of the proposed sites for moving the capital from Jakarta. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Two of the suggested locations are believed to be the low-slung Central Kalimantan capital of Palangkaraya, and a coastal site somewhere near Pare-Pare, the capital of West Sulawesi, 600 kilometers northeast of Jakarta on the edge of the Makassar Strait.

Like most of Kalimantan, landlocked Palangkaraya (population 285,000) is not prone to seismic activity. But it would require a massive upgrade of transport links – from the city’s newly built airport to the 200-kilometer highway linking it to the coal port of Banjarmasin on the south coast.

Of greater concern is that Palangkaraya is built on peatland and sandy soil, hardly conducive to the high-rise buildings associated with an administrative capital that would have to accommodate up to two million civil servants and their dependents. The tallest building there now is only six floors.

Although it hasn’t happened since 2015, the provincial capital has also been afflicted in the past by smoke from fires ravaging the one million hectares of peatland, lying between Palangkaraya and Banjarmasin, which was drained as part of president Suharto’s disastrous mega-rice project in the late 1990s.

Students on their way to school wade through a flooded street in Jakarta, Indonesia February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta
Students on their way to school wade through a flooded street in Jakarta, Indonesia February 6, 2018. Photo: Facebook

Coastal Pare-Pare (population 140,000), birthplace of former president B J Habibie, is in a quake-prone zone, but probably a safe distance away from the major fault line bisecting neighboring Central Sulawesi to the north and northeast where a tsunami struck in September 2018, killing more than 4,300 people.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is said to have favored moving the capital to Jonggol, a district about an 80 minute drive to the southeast of Jakarta. But that would perpetuate the Java-centric thinking that Widodo has made it clear he wants to avoid in the name of fairness and equality.

Given the rapid urbanization that has taken place even since Yudhoyono’s 2004-2014 decade in power, it would also mean simply shifting the country’s administrative and legislative functions from one part of the Greater Jakarta conurbation to another.