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Moving out of Jakarta: a capital idea?

It's bold, it's innovative, it is forward-looking. The decision to move Indonesia's capital away from Jakarta is the kind of sweeping "presidential" move that politicians find irresistible. Especially, a just (or just about) re-elected president that might be wishing to distract attention from any possibly controversial elements of the recent polls.

That's a little unfair to Indonesian leader Joko Widodo, who announced such an initative earlier this week. There really is a good case for moving government functions and people out of Jakarta. With 10m people and a metropolitan area three times as big, it is overcrowded; it suffers from the world's worst traffic jams, with 18m registered vehicles; it is sinking a centimetre a year and by 2050, large parts of its northern suburbs may be underwater; and it already suffers from annual floods and is at risk of earthquakes.

On the positive side, moving people, jobs and spending power out of the island of Java (which dominates Indonesia, accounting for 57% of its 260m population and the majority of economic activity) would balance national development. Hence the most favoured locations for any new capital city, both according to the government and Indonesians on social media, are all on Borneo -- comparatively underdeveloped and much less prone to natural disasters. And the boost to infrastructure development and GDP of this $33 billion move, even if spread over the 10 years it would undoubtedly take, are not to be sniffed at. No doubt another thing that Jokowi (as he is known) has considered given his pledges to accelerate economic growth well above the 5% of recent years.

Case closed then? Unfortunately not. Around 20 countries have moved their capitals since 1950 and few can claim to have done so successfully. Particularly where the new location had to be effectively built from scratch -- which would be the case in Indonesia. Examples of arid, artificial capitals that have never developed a culture and organic life of their own abound, from Putraja in Malaysia to Naypyidaw in Myanmar. Even Australia's Canberra, arguably, took decades to evolve beyond a set of sterile public buildings linked by ugly roundabouts.

The one that seems to be working best is Brasilia, which grew rapidly after inauguration in 1960 and today boasts over 3m inhabitants and the highest GDP per capita of any Latin American city. But the move was planned over decades, construction took five years and the relocation was well executed. Indonesia, by contrast, while also toying with such a move since the time of Sukarno, its first president after independence, has yet to put in place the basic legislation, regulatory changes and infrastructure to make it feasible. Following his bold announcement, Jokowi now has to literally go back to the drawing board. 


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