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Jakarta court finds president, governor liable for city’s air pollution woes

Banner image: Panel of judges at the Central Jakarta District Court delivered ruling on a citizen lawsuit related to air pollution in Jakarta. Image by Capital City Coalition.

  • An Indonesian court has found seven top government officials, including President Joko Widodo, liable for the poor air quality in the country’s capital, Jakarta.
  • The judges order the government to carry out serious actions to improve air quality in Jakarta and ensure the rights of citizens to clean and healthy air.
  • Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, one of the respondents in the citizen lawsuit, said he won’t challenge the ruling, after initially refusing to take full accountability for the city’s persistent pollution problem.

JAKARTA — A court in Jakarta has found the Indonesian government, including President Joko Widodo, negligent in a citizen lawsuit filed against the poor air quality in the capital.

In its landmark ruling handed down Sept. 16, the Central Jakarta District Court ruled the government was liable for the air pollution caused by millions of motor vehicles and by coal-fired power plants in the neighboring provinces of Banten and West Java.

Jakarta is routinely ranked among the most polluted major cities in the world, with experts estimating that poor air quality causes 5.5 million cases of disease here each year, amounting to 6.8 trillion rupiah ($477 million) in health costs.

Ayu Eza Tiara from the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta) and a member of the legal team representing the 32 citizen plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit back in July 2019, called the verdict a “landmark ruling” as it’s the first air pollution lawsuit in Indonesia.

Named as respondents in the lawsuit were President Widodo and three of his ministers — home affairs, health, and environment — as well as the governors of Jakarta, Banten and West Java.

Saifuddin Zuhri, the presiding judge in the case, said the government had “violated the law” by failing to fulfill citizens’ rights to healthy air. He called on the government to take serious measures to improve air quality.

Among the court-ordered measures is an update of the national air quality standard, which is much laxer than elsewhere in Asia or World Health Organization recommendations.

The WHO considers exposure to harmful PM2.5 particles at concentrations of more than 25 migrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) over a 24-hour period as considered unhealthy. Indonesia’s previous national standard, which was determined in 1999 and in force until 2020, was nearly three times higher, at 65 μg/m3.

The government updated the national standard in 2021 through a new regulation. But at 55 μg/m3, the new national standard is still less stringent than the WHO standard.

“Even though the government has revised the national air quality standard through the 2021 government regulation, it hasn’t been proven to contribute to air pollution mitigation,” Ayu said. “Because the regulation is still new, there has to be an evaluation [to see if the new standard is strict enough] in the next one year.”

Activists stage a protest in front of the Central Jakarta District Court before judges deliver verdict in a citizen lawsuit related to air pollution in Jakarta. Image by Capital City Coalition.

Pollution from power plants

The court also ordered improvements to be made in the air quality of Jakarta specifically. It ordered Governor Anies Baswedan to come up with a strategy to mitigate air pollution in the capital.

This is similar to what the Chinese government did in 2014 when it declared war on air pollution and unveiled an action plan to improve overall air quality across the country within five years.

To come up with a similar strategy, the Jakarta administration needs to study the city’s air quality and the sources of pollution, the judges said, and craft science-based policies in response.

In 2019, Anies issued an instruction on how to tackle air pollution in the city, which included planting trees. Ayu, however, said the instruction hasn’t been effective as it’s not based on science or concrete data.

“Until now, Anies always takes pride in his instruction, but the judges said what the governor has done has no clear benchmark [to measure against]. So they’re asking for an action plan that has a benchmark,” she said.

The court also ruled the Ministry of Health had failed to communicate the health risks posed by air pollution to the public, and ordered it to help the Jakarta administration in coming up with a target for air pollution reduction and an action plan.

“During the trial, the health ministry was in denial, saying that they’ve done a series of activities [to inform the public on the danger of air pollution],” Ayu said. “But in its ruling, the court said that there’s no proof that they’ve done that.”

The court also took into account air pollution coming from the neighboring provinces of Banten and West Java in its ruling, and thus ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to supervise emissions in those jurisdictions to identify the sources of transboundary pollution.

A 2020 study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a think tank, shows that the persistently high levels of PM2.5 pollutants in Jakarta come from coal-fired power plants within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the city.

Activists say they’re worried that air pollution in Jakarta could worsen with more coal plants planned to be built in the vicinity of the city in the coming years. These planned plants will be required to meet emissions standards that are much laxer than regional or global standards.

View of Suralaya coal power plant unit 1-7 seen from Suralaya village in Cilegon city, Banten Province, Indonesia. Image by Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.

To appeal or not to appeal

The government has 14 days from the date of the ruling to decide whether to file an appeal. Responding to the verdict, Jakarta Governor Anies said he wouldn’t challenge it, saying on Twitter that his administration “is ready to carry out the court’s decision for better Jakarta air.”

When the plaintiffs lodged the lawsuit in 2019, Anies sought to shift the blame to the public, including the activists, for not using public transportation often enough.

“Those people filing the lawsuit have also contributed to the air quality decline. Unless everyone rides a bicycle, it would be different if that’s the case,” he said at the time. “The air quality is not only caused by one or two professions, but by all of us, including those that filed the civil lawsuit.”

Ayu said it’s good that Anies has now accepted the ruling.

“But we can’t rest easy yet because based on our past experience in our lawsuit against the privatization of Jakarta’s water, the governor of Jakarta was Widodo,” she said. “When he became president, he decided to file an appeal [in 2015].”

Ayu called on the central government to follow the Jakarta administration’s example and not appeal against the ruling.

“The lawsuit itself already took two years,” she said. “If it’s appealed, how many more years would it take? Rather than wasting time and money, it’s better for the government to work together with us and researchers and the public to improve air quality.”

Khalisah Khalid, political coordinator for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and one of the plaintiffs, echoed Ayu’s sentiment.

“We hope that the defendants don’t file an appeal because what we’re fighting for is the interest, the health and the safety of all citizens,” she said, “including the future generation so that [all of us] can get a better quality of life.”


Banner image: Panel of judges at the Central Jakarta District Court delivered ruling on a citizen lawsuit related to air pollution in Jakarta. Image by Capital City Coalition.


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