The business owners on Fatmawati street contend that an elevated train station on the road violates their civic rights and will be detrimental to their business interests

Jakarta’s attempts at projecting itself as a shiny megalopolis, emblematic of the “rise of Asia”, always runs into one traffic snarl-shaped absence: that of a mass rapid transit system like Bangkok’s skytrain, Singapore’ MRT, or Delhi’s Metro. After remaining 25-years in the planning, Jakarta’s MRT was finally “launched” in May this year. But two months on, actual construction is yet to begin, in part due to the protestations of a group of Sindhi retailers, who have been holding up the commencement of works since 2011.

Wisps of agarbati float across Gagandas Lalwani’s furnishing store and calendars with images of Lakshmi and Ganesha intersperse the curtain tassels and upholstery fabric that flank the walls. “We are going to be victims of the MRT,” says Mr. Lalwani, an elderly, second-generation Indian-Indonesian, who is amongst the 60-70 Sindhis who own furnishing stores along the busy south-Jakarta shopping street of Fatmawati.

It is the contention of Fatmawati business owners that the city’s plans to build an elevated train station on the road, as part of the first phase of the MRT’s construction, violates their civic rights and will be detrimental to their business interests. Mr. Lalawani alleges it will lead to a “slumification” of the area, as has happened in other parts of Jakarta where train stations have been built.

He also objects to the fact that the distance between the elevated station and shop fronts will only be 22 metres, less than the minimum recommended space of 32 metres. There have been no consultations with civil society stakeholders he says, pointing to the fact that business owners in the area were given summary notices in late 2011, announcing the MRT as a fait accompli.

Mr. Lalwani’s group of protesters, known as Masyarakat Peduli MRT, are resisting sale of their land to the city government, a requirement for the project to move forward.

“This is an unusual group of people,” says Dr. Danang Parikesit, president of the Indonesia Transportation Society, a think tank. “As Indians they are highly educated and have even been to Delhi on a study tour to prepare a case study of the Delhi metro in support of their contention.” This contention is that either the MRT should not be built in central Jakarta at all and instead focus on the suburbs where low-income residents most need it, or at the very least, the stations should be built underground rather than elevated.

Last week, a delegation from Delhi Metro, led by Managing Director Mangu Singh was in Jakarta. Following a meeting with them, Jakarta Vice-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama announced that Delhi’s experiences had proved the anxieties of Fatmawati retailers to be unfounded. The reason Delhi metro fares remain affordable, he said, is because most of its tracks are overland rather than below ground.

Mr. Lalwani rebuts the claim by pointing out that the city centre in Delhi is served by underground stations, while overland ones have been constructed largely in the suburbs. In contrast, the Jakarta MRT would see overland stations in the heart of the city.

Though the city government remains unyielding in the face of the Fatmawati retailers’ demands, at least one of Mr. Lalwani’s wishes is about to come true. The Vice-Governor announced that a team of officials from MRT Jakarta will soon be sent to Delhi for training.

“The Delhi metro should be the benchmark for cost and efficiency,” agrees Mr. Lalwani. However, he points out that any Indian involvement in the Indonesian project will perforce be limited, given that the bulk of the Jakarta MRT is to be funded by a Japanese soft loan tied to the requirement that Japanese companies be the primary contract winners.

Consequently, two consortiums of Japanese and state-owned companies have won the tenders for the first three work packages announced for the project so far.

The first phase of the Jakarta MRT comprises 15.7 km of track and 13 stations, of which seven are planned as elevated.

The entire project will cost an estimated ¥144 billion ($1.78 billion) and is being funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency to the tune of ¥120 billion ($1.49 billion).

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