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Urban Planning | The potential of moving the national capital

All over the world, there are examples of economic cities being different from political

May 15, 2019 / 02:08 PM IST
Jakarta | The government of Indonesia announced its decision to relocate its capital city outside of the main island of Java as it is one of the most fastest sinking cities in the world. It also has the title of Southeast Asia’s most polluted city, with snarling traffic jams being the norm on its streets. (Image: Reuters)

Jakarta | The government of Indonesia announced its decision to relocate its capital city outside of the main island of Java as it is one of the most fastest sinking cities in the world. It also has the title of Southeast Asia’s most polluted city, with snarling traffic jams being the norm on its streets. (Image: Reuters)

Prakhar Misra and Sharmadha Srinivasan

Last month, the Indonesian planning minister announced that the country is looking to move its capital from Jakarta to an undecided city with Palangkaraya being a prime contender. The main reasons cited for this move are the infrastructure woes of Jakarta—like congested streets and inadequate sewerage networks—and the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. Indonesian policymakers will have to answer a barrage of questions on the purpose and functions of the new city in order for this move to be a success. This process and its implications will also serve as a precedent for other countries, India included.

The National Development Planning Minister stated that among other reasons for this move, balancing the centre of growth in Indonesia away from Jakarta was important. After all, Java contributes to 60 percent of Indonesia’s GDP. Some say that it is the less-developed eastern part of Indonesia that this move is targeting.

But all over the world, there are examples of economic cities being different from political. Thus, moving the capital may not help here. Plenty of examples illustrate this—Rome and Milan, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Berlin and Frankfurt, and Islamabad and Karachi. Moreover, the newly created capital cities in many countries—Washington DC, Brasilia, Abuja, Canberra, Dodoma—are distinct from their respective economic powerhouses—New York, Sao Paulo, Lagos, Sydney and Dar es Salaam. There are some instances where the capital city doubles up as the economic centre like Tokyo over Osaka, Stockholm over Gothenburg or Cairo over Alexandria, but these are cities of historical relevance and, thus, tend to be chosen by a process of natural selection rather than active engineering.

Jakarta, with a population of 30 million contributes to 20 percent of Indonesia’s GDP. Palangkaraya, the potential capital, however, is home to a population of just 2,60,000 with an economy that is just a small proportion of the current capital. Jakarta boomed as a maritime port city with an economy built on extensive trade networks while Palangkaraya is much more insular with infrastructure that is even patchier. Indonesian authorities will have to do better at planning and identification if they wish to boost regional clusters.

If the government goes the other route and creates a new political capital with Jakarta remaining the economic hub, the latter is likely to remain cluttered given that civil servants form only 9 percent of Jakarta’s population. This will not address the regional growth imbalance either. Irrespective of the intentions, the conundrum remains, as it is easy to move government personnel from one city to another but hard to engineer a shift in the economic ecosystem which has developed and sustained over many centuries. Spending $33 billion in other ways may be more purposeful than if invested in this manner.

In India, Amaravati’s selection as a state capital after the recent bifurcation of the state of Andhra Pradesh serves as a cautionary example. The government had the best of the plans after consulting various experts around the world. It was able to procure 33,000 acres of land through land pooling (giving residential plots, commercial plots and an annual compensation in return) rather than forcefully acquire land. Further, the planners designed the capital on the banks of river Krishna—the 4th largest river in India—keeping in mind issues of water supply and transport for the future. However, the capital is facing its own sets of problems, lacking financial and political support from the Union government and running out of funds to meet this ambitious vision.

But even if we were to assume that Indonesia has the funds to do this, the recent experiences of building the capitals of Brasilia (Brazil) and Naypyidaw (Myanmar) also serve as warnings. Naypyidaw, built in such a manner with well-planned highways and residential and commercial complexes, is described as a ghost town with the city failing to attract people. Brazil invested approximately $10.5 billion to shift the administrative capital to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro, but has ended with a functional political capital that people don't want to migrate to. Planning capital cities, therefore, is an arduous task with no set formula to ensure it meets the intended purpose.

On another note, as with Brasilia and Naypyidaw, capital cities are often visited by foreign delegations on official visits. Vadim Rossman in his book, Capital Cities: Varieties and Patterns of Development and Relocation, argued that for a capital to be successful, the most important trait that must be embraced is a balance of attributes in terms of geography, economics, religion and ethnicity. When moving India’s capital from Calcutta in the east—made necessary by rising local opposition during the independence struggle—Delhi was a centrally located major city, had been a seat for previous kings and rulers, and had a dominant mix of religious and ethnic cultures. Adjacent to ‘Old Delhi’, therefore, New Delhi was created.

Jakarta, while being central to the country, has genuine problems and if the government decides to move, this should be criteria they should try to satisfy. Interestingly, Soekarno had repeatedly spoken of the capital located in Palangkaraya (instead of Jakarta) because of its central location on the Indonesian archipelago. Clearly, the balance of attributes was a consideration for the founding fathers of Indonesia.

Urban infrastructure problems and issues of land subsidence in Jakarta will have to be addressed separate from the creation of the new capital, if it happens. Herein lies a lesson for India. Just like Jakarta, many Indian cities are suffering on account of lack of urban planning—Bengaluru and Mumbai among them. The rising congestion costs in major cities are increasingly unsustainable. In addition, Bengaluru faces problems of significant damage to its water-bodies with 66 percent of its lakes being sewage-fed and 72 percent showing loss of catchment areas. In Mumbai, the continuous erosion of the shoreline poses a ‘high risk’ threat to the infrastructure of the city. In fact, 45 percent of India’s 8,000 km shoreline is facing erosion.

Indian policymakers should look to Jakarta for a preview of what happens in the absence of long-term sustainable solutions—a hunt for band-aid style quick fixes once the point of no return has been reached. One way to do this, as some suggest, is a fundamental shift in the way we think of urban planning—shifting from treating ‘planning’ literally to using it more as a ‘reference point’, keeping the plans flexible and adaptable. Whether this approach will actually make a difference to the future of India’s cities still remain to be seen.

Prakhar Misra and Sharmadha Srinivasan are associates with the IDFC Institute.

Moneycontrol Contributor
Moneycontrol Contributor
first published: May 15, 2019 02:04 pm