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Forced evictions along Jakarta waterway a liability for Ahok as governor’s race nears finish line

  • Flooding is massive problem in Jakarta. And most of its waterways are heavily polluted.
  • The capital region’s Governor Ahok has tried to address the problem — including by demolishing riverside slums.
  • Residents of Bukit Duri, which stood on the banks of the Ciliwung River until the government tore it down last year, are suing the city in a class-action suit.

JAKARTA — Six weeks after the last of the Bukit Duri evictees moved into their new dwellings here in the Indonesian capital, the atmosphere was friendly but painful. Some tenants told jokes at the food stall in the parking lot. The cook, also a former Bukit Duri resident, had initially gone to her hometown of Bogor. But after a neighbor told her about the new quarters and a possible income, she returned. “I lived in Bukit Duri for more than two decades — when I returned to Bogor there was really no one I knew anymore,” she said. “I was alone, moping without anyone to talk to. Here I am with friends, I have a life.”

Twenty of the evicted families — 96 men, women and children — now live in a two-storey, 800-square-meter building in South Jakarta’s Kampung Melayu neighborhood, about a kilometer from where their houses in Bukit Duri once stood. The riverside slum was mowed to the ground last October in the name of flood prevention. The Jakarta administration sent bulldozers, guarded by police and soldiers, to remove hundreds of families from the area.

Bukit Duri lay on the banks of the Ciliwung River, which the government is trying to “normalize.” The waterway crosses the city and has been made filthy by industrial sewage, garbage dumped by urban residents and a failure of city maintenance. Only recently, and especially since incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama took office, have rivers and many parts of the capital region been cleaned, in line with his pledge to end corruption and solve the city’s awful traffic and floods. The Ciliwung is prone to overflow, and the slum neighborhoods lining its edges suffer regular floods. Ahok maintains it is irresponsible to let them live that way.

A Bukit Duri resident tries to align a plank so he can cross over to another hut during a 2009 flood in the neighborhood, which has since been demolished by the city government. Photo by Danumurthi Mahendra/Flickr

Bukit Duri residents resisted the eviction. Some did so militantly, others through legal channels. Bukit Duri has existed since 1920. Many families have lived there for generations.

Heri, a 57-year-old evictee, was born in Bukit Duri. His grandfather moved there during the Dutch colonial era. He welcomed last month’s court verdict declaring the evictions illegal. The panel of judges at the Jakarta State Administrative Court had ordered the city to revoke the eviction notice. The Ahok administration has appealed the ruling. Like others, Heri is anxious the ruling will be overturned.

Heri has placed his faith in a class-action suit filed by evictees at the Central Jakarta District Court. Each family in the class action claims to have evidence of land ownership in the emptied area. Their proof ranges from land certificates to letters of land appointments, purchase agreements, building-use permits and ownership statements. Heri comes to each hearing. Assisted by Bukit Duri resident lawyer Vera Soemarwi, the landowners are demanding full compensation and damages. “Come what may,” Heri said, “we will appeal unjust rulings and claim justice.”

A Bukit Duri resident sells used furniture on a bridge in the neighborhood, said to belong to locals who lost their homes in the floods. Photo by Danumurthi Mahendra/Flickr

The grievance rests in large part on how the city carried out the eviction. The government expedited the process by using a regulation against disruption of public order. Insinuation flew in the media that residents of the Bukit Duri slums were illegal in the capital. Exacerbating the perceived injustice, the governor stressed that it was a case of relocation instead of eviction.

In fact, the city administration had prepared several low-budget, modern-looking apartments in other parts of Jakarta, and offered Bukit Duri residents three months of free lodging. To qualify, one had to show proof of a monthly salary and a letter from one’s employer, open an account in the city’s Bank DKI and deposit the equivalent of three months rent. Many residents scrape by with jobs in the informal economy and could not fulfill the requirements.

Heri said the cost of living in an apartment is twice that of the private rooms in which they now live. Besides the basic rent of 350,000 rupiah ($26) there are costs — water, electricity, maintenance and security — which altogether amount to a minimum of 800,000 rupiah monthly. The Kampung Melayu homes cost 430,000 rupiah per family.

On top of that, those getting apartments had to sign an agreement forfeiting any prospect of compensation. For Heri and those in the class action, this was unacceptable. While some residents were readily relocated, accepting the deal and expressing no desire to return to Bukit Duri, others who signed on have regretted the choice. Other high-rises made available for previous evictions in 2003-4 have deteriorated into stapled slums.

A man stands near a dump site on the banks of the Ciliwung River in Bukit Duri. The color of the water is muddy brown, shown here as light grey. The black liquid oozing out of the sewage is shown here in its real color. Photo by Danumurthi Mahendra/Flickr

Another thorn in the flesh is the feeling of being lied to and ignored. As early as 2003, architect Marcello Sidharta, then a student at Jakarta’s Tarumanagara University, made a maquette — a preliminary sketch — of river-friendly living quarters for his studies. Sandyawan Sumardi, director of Ciliwung Merdeka, an NGO working more than 20 years in the area, presented it to city officials in the hope of gaining support for its realization. There was no follow up.

More recently, in 2012, Sumardi together with the Bukit Duri community and assisted by academics and practitioners in Jakarta’s Urban Village Forum presented environment and community-sensitive housing designs to President Joko Widodo, who was then Jakarta’s governor, with Ahok as his deputy. The designs were based on local traditions, besides community resilience and knowledge of living with rivers. They were favored and approved of by both men. But the city never did anything with the plans.

Governor Ahok (green shirt) meets with the Australian ambassador (pink shirt) at the TransJakarta Bus headquarters in Jakarta. Photo by Timothy Tobing for DFAT/Flickr

In a fast-growing metropolis like Jakarta, eviction is a recurring issue. Documentation of problems and effects of previous evictions can be easily found. A 2004 Human Rights Watch report on evictions in Teluk Gong, North Jakarta, was delivered — with reports from other countries — to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), which accordingly adjusted its urban planning guidelines.

In line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN Habitat calls for strong and effective leadership, land-use planning, jurisdictional coordination, inclusive citizen participation in infrastructure design, and efficient financing to help foster urban responses to climate change. Its 2016 World Cities Report insists on participation and collaboration, inclusivity, and recognition of the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups.

As Bukit Duri evictees and residents move forward with community-based saving plans for land ownership, Sumardi is weary of questions asking why these progressive designs were not self-implemented earlier. “Where would we get the money to do that? We are just a small and relatively poor community. We have knowledge, talent and have the will to develop, but we need government support and facilitation.”

Jakarta faces gubernatorial elections on Wednesday. Candidates have turned the evictions into a politicum. The two candidates running against Ahok promise no more evictions, while the incumbent insists they can’t be avoided as the city grows. The latter may be true. For many in Jakarta, Ahok is heroic in his drive for change. Improvement in administrative services and the reduction of floods have been felt by all. He has proven some learning ability on other sensitive issues, but will he learn to make leeway for inclusive citizen participation? Or will he keep using heavyhanded (eviction) methods? This remains to be seen. The governor’s chair is up for grabs.

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