Jakarta: A Megacity of Inequality

The second LAGS lecture looked at the severe inequalities in Jakarta from “superblocks” for the rich to the lives of squatters.

Jakarta: Inside an Asian Mega-City

In March, Dr. Helga Leitner, professor of geography at UCLA talked about her travels to Jakarta and the great disparities between the rich and the poor.

Jakarta has undergone a major transformation over about the last 50 years.  Its central population has increased from 1.3 million in 1949 to 10 million in 2010.  Los Angeles County on the other hand had about 9.9 million people in 2010.  The greater Jakarta area had 28 million then while the greater L.A. area had only 18 million people.  It’s economy has grown alongside it.  But as a megacity, it also has mega problems.

Jakarta is like a microcosm of Indonesia’s ethnic diversity.  The country has the highest per capita growth rates in Gross Regional Domestic Product and the highest per capita expenditure, but it also has the greatest inequalities in income.

Part of this stems from the creation of “superblocks,” which consist of multi-use developments, hotels, supermarkets, shopping malls and high-rise apartments and are located along major highways.  They are used mainly as tourist attractions (European and Japanese), but despite the money they bring in, they are also a problem.  Many locals think there are far too many and there are ones that are not doing well because of an oversupply of retail space.  On the bright side, Jakarta’s rapid economic growth has created a growing middles class.

Image from jualmurah-tanah.blogspot.com

Image from jualmurah-tanah.blogspot.com

The increasing gap between the rich and the poor though is another story.  The inequalities have grown worse since the 1980s despite the dramatic 6-11% increase in economic growth.   Out of 200 million people, 100 million get by on $2 a day.

For the wealthy, there are places like BSD City – gated communities with English signs and elite housing.  But about half of these sit empty while the poorest, squatters, live as illegals, occupying land they aren’t supposed to.  They live along the dozens of rivers crisscrossing the area and are granted a title to the land after 10 years of occupation.  But they must endure living in shacks and being flooded out every year with the constant potential of being killed.

Health care is also a rare and costly thing for the poor.  Up until last year, the majority of the poor had no access to health care.  Ciliwung Merdeka is an organization, helping the poor with access to clinics and dentists among other things.

The lives and residences of squatters though can improve with time, getting upgrades, modest improvements and some rebuilding.  Some become attractive places, but when these places are located in high property value space this can lead to others trying to push the original tenets out.  An example of this is Kampung Menteng Atas.  There is also a land mafia that illegally acquires land and then turns around and sells it.

An interesting tradition for Kampung people is to get food from carts on bike wheels have traditional Indonesian food.  There are programs to help provide free rations of the staple rice to low income families, but these programs are too modest to make much of a difference.  They face problems of maintenance and corruption.

MIT Talk on Indonesian Food Carts Part 1

Two other big problems the poor face are concerning water and waste disposal.  The water supply has been privatized, but despite this only 25% of people have piped water.  The “lucky” poor have pumps while the rest must draw their water from wells.  This water though is not always drinkable because of salt water penetrating the drinking water supply.  People with compromised wells must purchase water from vendors, which per liter is more expensive than piped water.

The human waste disposal situation is even worse.  The poor use the many rivers and channels as their main dump site.  They have floating toilets (outhouses) that send the waste directly into the river, thus further polluting the drinking water supply.  The septic tanks also leach pollutants into the groundwater.

A floating toilet.  Image from www.thejakartapost.com

A floating toilet. Image from http://www.thejakartapost.com

For the poor in Jakarta, the belief in trickle-down economics doesn’t work.  There is a growing middle class, but the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, much like what is found in America today, shows an ineffective public administration.  In 2012, Jakarta had a low wage policy (legal minimum daily wage) equal to about $2.95, creating one of the lowest in Asia.  There are a few countries with lower ones.


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