The three-wheeler scooter transports everyone from the city’s office workers to university students

Possibly the most iconic image of Indonesian capital Jakarta is that of a bright orange, generously dented, madly careening, three-wheeler scooter, with the word “Bajaj” painted in front. Transporting everyone — from office workers to university students and even the odd, shell-shocked foreigner — thousands of these three-wheelers ply Jakarta’s back lanes and byways.

Jakarta began to import two-stroke autorickshaws from India almost four decades ago, making them an integral part of the urban fauna, deeply intertwined with the city’s history, imagery and even, language. Locally, they are simply referred to by their Indian brand name “Bajaj,” rather than the onomatopoeic “tuk tuk” that is common in other parts of South East Asia.

Bajaj three-wheelers were first introduced in 1975 and were intended to replace the becak or cycle-rickshaws that were ubiquitous here back then. “At the time our city planners were dreaming of a modernised, mechanised future and the Bajaj represented that,” says Danang Parikesit, president of Indonesia Transportation Society, a think tank.

But within a couple of decades the reputation of these vehicles plummeted. By the 1990s Jakarta had transformed into a shiny megalopolis of up market malls and the conception of what constituted the “modern” had transformed. Smoke-spewing, racket-making, Bajaj began to be viewed as polluting, unsafe and backward.

For over a decade now, the city government has been launching campaigns and issuing regulations to try and phase out the Bajaj. The number of permits for these vehicles was frozen in 1990 and efforts were made to minimise the routes they could ply in. In 2003, the government announced production of a small-sized, domestically manufactured, four-wheel car called the kancil, which it was hoped would replace the Bajaj in the manner in which the Bajaj themselves had ousted the becak.

Remarkable persistence

But the Bajaj showed a remarkable persistence and while the kancil failed to take off, the three wheelers from India showed no signs of diminishing popularity. Jakarta continued to lack sufficient and efficient mass rapid conveyance like a metro or sky train, and the Bajaj filled this transportational vacuum.

Finally, in 2006, the Indian firm Bajaj’s Indonesian partner, P.T. Abdi Raharaja, won governmental approval to import 5,000 new, four stroke, CNG-run, top-of-the-line three-wheelers, to replace the older two-stroke models. The local government, once again, declared that the days of the original Bajaj were numbered.

But replacing the old models did not prove as easy as simply securing the permits for the new vehicles. According to the Jakarta Transportation Office, there are currently 14,424 licensed two-stroke Bajaj still operational in Jakarta. Moreover, an additional 14,000-15,000 unlicensed vehicles are estimated to be spluttering about in the city’s three-wheeler mêlée as well.

Bajaj, says Rudi Irwan, Director of PT Abdi Raharaja, has become a “home industry.” Thus, although between 1990 and 2006 no new Bajaj vehicles from India were imported, spare parts cloning became rampant, with the result that a “Bajaj never dies. It is simply rebuilt again and again using domestically cloned parts.”

The main problem with replacing the old Bajaj with the new, blue coloured, CNG-model, lay in the much higher price tag of around IDR 59.5 million ($6,500) for these vehicles compared to the IDR 12-20 million ($1,200-2,000) that the older model had cost.

Bajaj plying in Jakarta are, moreover, not metered, and instead customers are charged a negotiated fee. The leeway that Bajaj drivers have for charging higher fares is narrow. If they ask too high a price to compensate for the cost of the more expensive CNG vehicles, customers can simply switch to taxies or ojek (motorcycle taxis).

Dr. Danang points out that unlike in many other countries, in Indonesia, the government did not provide loans at lower rates for environment-friendly vehicles either, so there were no financial incentives for Bajaj owners to cooperate with the regulation. In fact the new Bajaj were initially subject to a 45 per cent import tax, higher than normal, since four-stroke CNG vehicles were arbitrarily subject to an additional luxury tax. Eventually, this tariff was reduced after protests by Bajaj owners led to the Jakarta governor lobbying for a tariff reduction. Currently the import tax is at 25 per cent.

Nonetheless, seven years after the decision was taken to replace the old Bajaj, only 3,649 units have in fact been switched. Syafrin Liputo, head of land transportation at the Jakarta Transportation Office, claims the delay is due to the reluctance of Bajaj owners to comply with the regulations. But with the reduced tax, and what Mr. Rudi Irwan calls “intensive socialisation” of owners regarding the benefits of the new model, the replacement finally seems under way.

On a recent, cloudy, Monday morning, a 50-odd strong crowd gathered in a corner of West Jakarta. A festive atmosphere prevailed with food and drink being parcelled out and a seven-year-old dressed up in a superman outfit, causing several of the matronly women present to cluck in delight. Suddenly, the acrid smell of liquefying metal filled the air, accompanied by a shower of sparks that caused some of the women to gather up their clothes and scatter in panic. The scrapping of the 144, old Bajaj parked in the junkyard that morning had begun. Pak Yunus, head of PT Matahari, one of the companies in charge of overseeing the replacement process, smiled widely as he boasted of the 734 Bajaj vehicles already scrapped this year. The pace of replacement was picking up, he said, owners having finally come around.

The old Bajaj were lined up in rows, a red tick mark on their windshield confirming them as condemned. It could take three days for a single unit to be completely melted down into scrap, explained Yunus, as the former owners of the vehicles looked on at the destruction with good humour.

Sixty-year-old Pak Harjono owns a fleet of seven Bajaj, some of which he’s been running since 1976. He recalled the glory days of the three-wheeler in the 1970s, when people tried it out because it was considered to be hip and smart and a curiosity. He was upset at the reversal of fortunes that the Bajaj’s reputation had suffered in the intervening years, but believed the new model might help revive some of its old lustre. “This new model is more expensive but will use less gas and pollute less. And it’s not so noisy. Eventually customers will prefer it,” he claimed optimistically.

Harjono was elbowed away by Pak Pahajit, a baseball cap-wearing, 73-year-old, who was the undisputed don of Bajaj owners, given his 120-strong fleet. Pahajit, was obviously used to grandstanding, and the other owners stood at a respectful attention when he spoke.

“I want to express my appreciation of Indian technology,” he pronounced gravely, while the others made low sounds of agreement. Pahajit told of how his company decided at one point to branch out into importing three-wheelers from China, that were priced cheaper, at IDR 46.5 million ($4,700), per vehicle. But by the time government permits to import these were obtained, the Chinese had raised this price to IDR 50 million ($5,050). Given that the quality of the Chinese “bajaj” was much poorer than an Indian-made one, Pahajit decided to give up on China. “We are 100 per cent with bajaj from India, now,” he beamed, to scattered applause.

Mr. Rudi Irwan is also dismissive of the Chinese three-wheelers that are trying to enter the market. But he is more concerned about the Indian company TVS, which is also about to begin exporting to Indonesia. “They have a good product,” he says of TVS, but for the moment they plan to focus on the island of Sumatra, leaving the Indonesian capital to Bajaj. After all, it would be embarrassing for a TVS vehicle to be referred to as a “bajaj”— an inevitability in Jakarta parlance.

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