Bye Bye Batavia, Hullo Palangka Raya

Indonesia will shift its capital from Jakarta to the heart of Borneo for environmental reasons. Down To Earth finds that this isn't the first such move. Will it be the last?

By Rajat Ghai
Last Updated: Tuesday 30 April 2019
A bridge in Palangka Raya, Borneo. Credit: Getty Images
A bridge in Palangka Raya, Borneo. Credit: Getty Images A bridge in Palangka Raya, Borneo. Credit: Getty Images

The sprawling nation of Indonesia, spread over 17,000 islands between the Indian and Pacific Oceans has decided to shift its capital.

Incumbent President Joko Widodo has made the decision in a closed-door meeting. And while it is not yet known as to where the new capital would be, some media reports have stated that the sleepy town of Palangka Raya, on the huge island of Borneo, is the front-runner.

The decision to discard Jakarta, the present capital has several reasons to it and has been in the works for a long time. Foremost among them is that Jakarta is sinking into the Java Sea. Yes, that is right. Sinking.

The site where Jakarta lies now has been home to major settlements in the Hindu-Buddhist period of Indonesia’s history and subsequent Muslim sultanates. However, the modern city’s immediate ancestor is the Dutch settlement of Batavia, which was built by the Dutch colonial administrator, Jan Pieterszoon Coen as the capital of the then-fledgling Dutch East Indies in 1619.

Batavia/Jakarta is located on monotonously flat, marshy land and crisscrossed by 13 rivers that end into the Java Sea on the north coast of the island of Java, the most important island of Indonesia and the most populous island in the world. Today, it is a mega city and home to 10 million people.  

According to latest research, a huge portion of Jakarta could be entirely submerged by 2050. North Jakarta sunk eight feet in 10 years and is continuing to sink an average of 1-15 centimetres a year.

Besides the problem of sinking, Jakarta also faces huge traffic congestion and air pollution. Its traffic snarls are well-known.

Widodo’s decision could also have been influenced by that common consideration that has been used in shifting capitals elsewhere: Geography.

Palangka Raya, in Borneo, lies at the geographic centre of the archipelago, which is also multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious. Widodo, say media reports, is looking at decentralising political power which currently, is concentrated in the hands of the Javanese people, the most prominent ethnic group in the country.

And while making Palangka Raya would present its own set of environmental problems like clearing virgin equatorial rainforest, for which Borneo is famous, this is not the first time that a country’s capital has been shifted for environmental reasons.

One prominent example is Nay Pyi Daw, the sparsely-populated capital of Myanmar. The new city is young, having been only completed in 2005 by then-ruler of Myanmar’s military junta, Than Shwe. One of the reasons could have been the environment. Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in May 2008, sweeping in from the Bay of Bengal. It was the worst natural disaster to have hit Myanmar in the country’s recorded history. Over 100,000 people were killed, the majority of them in the delta of the Irrawaddy river, where Myanmar’s traditional, erstwhile capital, Yangon/Rangoon also lies. Nay Pyi Daw, which is far inland, seemed a better choice.

Another example is Putrajaya, the federal capital of Malaysia. The capital was shifted here from Kuala Lumpur in 1999, because of overcrowding and congestion in the former.

Also, Jakarta may not be the last capital to be dropped because of the environment. The next candidate might be Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Located in the shadow of the Alborz range, the city is home to 8.7 million people and bursting at the seams. Worse, it has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The government has planned the change of capital several times; but so far, Tehran still remains the Dar-ul-Hukumat.

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