Jakarta governor raises a storm after he shuts busy street

Street vendors preparing to set up their stalls in the Tanah Abang market in Jakarta. The busy area (below) in the congested Indonesian capital also has a train station and when the new governor, Anies Baswedan, closed off one of the busiest streets
Street vendors preparing to set up their stalls in the Tanah Abang market in Jakarta. The busy area in the congested Indonesian capital also has a train station and when the new governor, Anies Baswedan, closed off one of the busiest streets in the market last month in favour of street stalls, bus drivers found their livelihoods threatened.PHOTO: REUTERS
Street vendors preparing to set up their stalls in the Tanah Abang market in Jakarta. The busy area (below) in the congested Indonesian capital also has a train station and when the new governor, Anies Baswedan, closed off one of the busiest streets
Street vendors preparing to set up their stalls in the Tanah Abang market in Jakarta. The busy area (above) in the congested Indonesian capital also has a train station and when the new governor, Anies Baswedan, closed off one of the busiest streets in the market last month in favour of street stalls, bus drivers found their livelihoods threatened.PHOTO: REUTERS

For Mr Gorlin Simbolin, 52, money was already tight. A driver for one of Jakarta's ubiquitous powder blue "angkot" microbuses, he spends 12 hours a day ferrying low-wage office workers and housekeepers from the sprawling outskirts of the city into town for fares of no more than 60 Singapore cents each.

But when Jakarta's new governor, Mr Anies Baswedan, closed off one of the busiest streets in the famously congested Tanah Abang market last month in favour of street stalls, things went from bad to worse. Frustrated passengers abandoned him in droves.

The added chaos made it tough for him to pick up passengers from the nearby train station. Would-be customers opted for the competition: comfy, new air-conditioned buses or ride hailing apps. Mr Simbolin reckons his take-home pay has plummeted by nearly a third, from $7 a day to $5.

"After we pay the rent (on the vehicle) sometimes we make a loss."

The impasse is shaping up as one of Mr Anies' first big tests. He won last April's election for governor in part on promises to the working poor to dial back forced evictions, which tended to hit them hardest. Now, he risks alienating some of his base.

"Tanah Abang traffic was bad, but now it's getting worse," Mr Simbolin said.

The issue dates back to 2013 when Mr Joko Widodo, then the governor of Jakarta, evicted food stalls and other shops that had clogged Jalan Jatibaru Raya, a bustling street which stretches past one of the city's busiest train stations before slicing through a district thought to be South-east Asia's biggest textile market.

Mr Joko's plan was to set up Singapore-style hawker stands and shopping malls, riffing on an earlier success while he was mayor of Surakarta, which was credited with easing bottlenecks and making sidewalks passable. After Mr Joko was elected President of Indonesia in 2014, his then deputy, Basuki Purnama, better known as Ahok, doubled down on the plan by stepping up police patrols.

But merchants said the new three-storey complex, known as Blok G, was hard to access, driving shoppers away. In December, the new city government under Mr Anies decided to close the stretch of road to traffic during the day, handing out tents and offering space rent-free for nearly 400 stalls selling clothes and snacks.

For 28-year-old Bayu Prahaya, who manages a small corner stall selling jeans and other trousers, the offer is a no-brainer.

"I know it's controversial but for the shops it's great," he said on a recent sweltering afternoon.

In Blok G, he was relegated to the third-storey store where the stall owner paid upwards of 3 million rupiah (S$314) in rent. Now thousands amble past his shop daily.

The move has put Mr Anies at odds with one of his police chiefs.

The head traffic cop, Halim Panggara, last Monday said he submitted a report to the governor that his decision to close the street to traffic has "caused traffic jams and traffic accidents". Local media quoted him as saying: "The road should be returned to use by vehicles not for street vendors."

The governor has defended his decision, saying the closure over the busy Christmas period reduced traffic by more than half. Mr Anies and his deputy Sandiaga Uno had campaigned against evicting the stalls from the roadside because it caused undue hardship for the working poor.

Responding to the complaints about the Tanah Abang street closure and several other moves seen as populist measures, Mr Anies last Wednesday said his policies had strong legal grounds and were intended to benefit Jakarta residents. "What we have done is for Jakartans. We want the city to belong to all its residents, not only some of them," he said at City Hall, as reported by The Jakarta Post.

Hundreds of angkot drivers converged on City Hall on Monday, protesting against the impact of the road closure on their earnings. Some, who plied the routes through Tanah Abang, said their income had been halved. Others complained of rough treatment and windows broken by police as they approached Tanah Abang train station in a bid to pick up passengers.

But some analysts say Mr Anies' decision may also be just so much score settling. Mr Joko drummed Mr Anies out of the Cabinet after about 18 months as his education minister. Mr Anies then defeated Ahok, a Christian of ethnic Chinese descent and Mr Joko's ally, in a bitter election campaign.

Concord Consulting analyst Keith Loveard said of Mr Anies' decision. "This is revenge politics. As the minivan protest shows, finding a solution will be complex and not just a matter of reversing your predecessor's policies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2018, with the headline 'Jakarta governor raises a storm after he shuts busy street'. Print Edition | Subscribe