Explained | Why Indonesia has moved its capital

Studies have forecast that the entire city could sink by 2050, while flooding is a recurring problem.

The story so far: On January 18, Indonesia’s Parliament approved a bill to relocate the country’s capital from Jakarta to a new city to be built on the island of Borneo, named as Nusantara. The decision followed growing concerns about the long-term sustainability of Jakarta. The move to the forested province of East Kalimantan in Borneo has, however, triggered its own concerns about the environmental impact there as the massive project now kicks off.

What’s the problem with Jakarta?

In August 2019, President Joko Widodo first announced that the capital would be shifted from Jakarta, on the island of Java, which has served as the national capital since Indonesia’s independence, to a new city to be built in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, some 2,000 km northeast of Jakarta across the Java Sea. As visitors to Jakarta would attest, the teeming city has suffered from a range of urban problems from overcrowding to pollution and possibly one of the world’s most congested roads. One major concern about its long-term future was tied to the fact that the city, home to around 10 million people, stands on a swamp on the island of Java and has been slowly sinking. Studies have forecast that the entire city could sink by 2050, while flooding is a recurring problem.

What does the latest bill do?

The bill has now given the green light to Mr. Widodo’s long-discussed move and outlined a plan to shift the capital in five stages. Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa told Parliament the first stage, to be completed by 2024, will focus on basic infrastructure such as new roads to provide access to the site. The last stage will be finished in 2045. The project is Indonesia’s biggest by some distance, estimated to cost more than $30 billion. A broader goal, President Widodo has said, was to bring greater economic activity to Kalimantan and reduce the dependence on Jakarta as well as the island of Java, which is at the centre of economic activity as well as national politics. Government offices will all be moved to Nusantara. If the current capital is suffering from pollution and flooding among other problems, environmental groups have, however, expressed concerns that the new project may end up bringing those problems to Kalimantan, a region known for its forests and biodiversity.

Why has it been named Nusantara?

The name literally means “archipelago”, but also has a historical context referring to the entire region, including Indonesia and its neighbours in Southeast Asia. The Planning Minister said Nusantara “is a unity concept that accommodates all of our diversity, whether in race, language, or ethnicity” and the hope was for the new capital to be reflective of that aspiration. The name Nusantara dates back to Majapahit, a Hindu empire that was based in Java and ruled from the late 13th to the early 15th centuries. At its peak, its reach or influence extended beyond today’s Indonesia to much of Southeast Asia, including Brunei and parts of Thailand and the Philippines. While the official explanation is that this connotes diversity, there has been some head-scratching as to why President Widodo, who chose the name from a list of 80 suggestions, finally decided on one that refers not only to Indonesia but to the entire region.

Have other countries recently shifted capitals?

States have shifted capitals for a multitude of reasons throughout history, from the weather and military reasons to pride projects and just politics. Kazakhstan and Myanmar offer two recent examples. In 1997, Kazakhstan shifted its capital from Almaty to Astana, like many new capitals, a planned city. Then Astana was itself renamed in 2019 to Nur-Sultan, in homage to long-term former President Nursultan Nazarbayev (currently facing the ire of protesters amid the recent unrest). Myanmar in 2005 shifted its capital from Yangon to another planned city, Naypyidaw. Strategic reasons were cited as one possible explanation for the military regime’s decision.

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