Bringing connectivity to Indonesia's islands: The Jakarta Post

Villagers ride a motorbike past smoke and ash rising from the eruption of Mount Bromo in Probolinggo in eastern Java island on Dec 12, 2015.
Villagers ride a motorbike past smoke and ash rising from the eruption of Mount Bromo in Probolinggo in eastern Java island on Dec 12, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

To effectively address the problems of unequal economic growth and isolation among Indonesia's 6,000 inhabited islands, regional governments need to be able to innovate freely.

By Joanna Octavia

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

A sprawling archipelago, Indonesia faces the challenge of unequal economic growth and development between its 17,500 islands, of which about 6,000 are inhabited.

The country is also plagued by an uneven distribution of its population of 250 million people.

Economic growth tends to be highly concentrated in Java, where almost 60 per cent of the population lives. On the other hand, the population in the historically less-developed eastern region is thinly scattered across small islands and difficult terrain, providing less political and economic incentive to develop areas where population density is not as high.

This leaves the population living in less-developed areas isolated from the nation's progress.

Most of these communities are geographically isolated from developed economic, political and social centers, caused by inadequate roads, bridges and transportation. The challenging topography of the islands further exacerbates physical connectivity.

Among diverse infrastructure, building a road network should be at the forefront of development in remote and environmentally difficult areas. Constructing road infrastructure provides communities with access to commercial finance and jobs in nearby economic centers. Linking less-developed areas to these centers will also make public service deliveries, such as health care and educational facilities, more accessible.

The implementation of equitable infrastructure development, however, has been relatively ineffective.

For instance, a large portion of road infrastructure is concentrated on the smaller major islands of Java (24 per cent) and Sumatra (34 per cent). Other islands aside from the five major islands form 10 per cent of the total road networks, and the easternmost major island of Papua - which comprises 22 per cent of the country's total land mass - only makes up 5 per cent.

To effectively address isolation, regional governments need to be able to innovate freely.

Proper maintenance is another issue that follows after construction is completed. Maintenance of road networks is currently in a deplorable condition. A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that over 20 per cent of the roads were damaged in the predominantly rural regions of Kalimantan, Papua and Maluku.

Indonesia's archipelagic nature also means that connectivity is hampered by vast geographical distances between its thousands of islands. The newly launched maritime highway has eased passenger traffic between western and eastern Indonesia, but transportation around small island clusters is still lacking.

It is pertinent to address the problem of isolation for two major reasons:

First, the continued isolation of some communities will further widen the regional divide, in terms of economic growth, political participation and social cohesion.

There is a stark contrast to the quality and quantity of public service across the archipelago. Children in remote villages still do not enjoy the same educational opportunities as their counterparts in cities do, due to the lack of schools, qualified teachers and road networks.

This has led to the stagnation of human and social development. In 2013, more than 30 per cent of people aged 15 and above in Papua province were found to be illiterate.

Worse is the worrying state of public healthcare services, particularly the limited quantity of health workers. In 2014, 938 community health centres (Puskesmas) did not have a single general practitioner. Reports have surfaced of health cases from remote regions where patients were not treated before they reached the nearest available doctor.

Second, by not addressing isolation, Indonesia is missing out on additional economic potential that may be realized through the empowerment of local communities.

Indonesia's abundant natural resources and price competitiveness make tourism a very lucrative business, as there is evidently a growing interest in visiting less-frequented sites. Remote places such as the Komodo National Park and Raja Ampat Islands boast rare ecosystem that could boost future tourism development.

Social enterprise is another field that could be spurred by infrastructure development. Connectivity to and from remote areas would improve the flow of goods between the regions, and facilitate better communication between local communities and economic centers.

Since President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo came to power in October 2014, much of the government's focus has been shifted toward building infrastructure in these areas, particularly the eastern region.

Decentralisation, however, had allowed for more innovation in decision-making by regional level governments. For instance, regional governments, in partnership with the relevant ministries, can list strategic infrastructure projects that companies can undertake as a part of their corporate social responsibility programs. These may include building road networks, bridges, ports and small docks in their localities.

To effectively address isolation, regional governments need to be able to innovate freely, without fear of backlash by other institutions. To achieve this, efforts should be made to clarify the extent of their authority over the development in each of their locality.

Unfortunately, overcoming isolation may also come at a price associated with environmental standards, cultural diversity and ethical principles.

As such all stakeholders need to take proactive measures in striking a balance between pursuing economic growth and preservation of public interest.

* The writer is a senior researcher at the Centre for Public Policy Transformation in Jakarta.