Notes from Jakarta

June 8th

30 million people. It boggles the mind to think that so many could live in a single metropolitan area. But the Jakarta city region is just that – the second largest concentration of people anywhere in the world. The city itself (which is itself actually 5 municipalities) is of Bangalore proportions – 10 million, 700 sq km – but the metro area which includes many other cities is thrice the size. In 25 years, a few Indian cities could look like this – vast, a little more wealthy than today, and juxtapositions of order and chaos, rich and poor, on an even bigger scale.

This morning, I read in the Economist that around the world, a lot of smaller cities are losing populations, while people shift in ever greater numbers to urban concentrations. We should expect this trend to continue. The opportunities of the megapolis are simply far greater than anything, for a much wider cross-section of people, than the alternatives.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to have one giant concentration in each state or country. It should be possible to build five or six urban cores in Karnataka, and in other states, each of which is a magnet for a significant economy around it. This will require a regional economic development strategy that leverages the strengths of each region distinctly. I’m hoping to put up the first cut of this proposal by September.

This week’s New Cities conference is about the ‘urban moment’. Recognising the way the world is going, around cities, what are the opportunities we can anticipate and derive, and what are the challenges we must prepare for? To my mind, two things stand out. One is clearly the scale of viability – diverse, large urban economies will get even more so, while many other places will struggle. The other is the scale of governance. Size carries the risk of distancing citizens from governance, so we must be deliberate in asking the question, “what is the scale at which citizens themselves can be effective participants in the management of their cities?” and build urban governance around the answer to that question.

Jakarta airport is quaint. Compared to a lot of other places, it is more natively designed, with a sprawl of low-slung tiled buildings and interior design that is distinctly tropical, maritime, and old-world. They seem to be building one giant building next to all this, however, which looks like the usual unimaginative stuff that everyone is putting up. Hopefully that wont dent the feel of the place. In the taxi, I asked the driver how far it would be to the hotel, and he said “if traffic is good, half an hour. Else, two hours”. Feels just like home 🙂


June 10th

Jakarta’s infrastructure is an order of magnitude larger than in Bangalore, and generally of good quality, but it is still creaking under the strain of the load it has to bear. One thing that seems to contribute to this is the separation between business districts and neighbourhoods for residences, which has led to a floating population of nearly 50% during the day as people commute to work in the business areas. A more multi-nodal city could have lightened this load, and eliminated lots of needless commuting. The traffic is nightmarish – even with a police escort and close to 100 cops clearing the way along the route to the Governor’s dinner from the hotel, it took more than an hour and a half to go a few miles.

Here in Indonesia too, like in India, people are starting to ask how things can get better. The government itself seems a little more committed to devolving powers to directly elected local mayors, and all the people I spoke to loved this change. People are also starting to put together their own initiatives for self-governance in different neighbourhoods, and that trend is very similar to what we see around the world. Spent lunchtime talking to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal about the likely shape of future city governments, as citizens become more and more involved in managing them.

Had the bonus of running into Muhammad Yunus, and exchanging a few words with him while he was here for the keynote address this morning. He pointed out that ‘grameen’ means ‘rural’, but he was still happy to speak at a conference on cities 🙂 He had left Vanderbilt University twenty years before I got there in 1991, but I was happy to note that we had something in common !! He made an interesting observation that cities could choose to be deliberate incubators of social businesses too, and see such efforts as prodding economies towards greater inclusion and equity.

Ashwin Mahesh
About Ashwin Mahesh 85 Articles
Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.

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