It was reported last year, and repeated last month, that Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is openly considering relocating the national government from the choking, nine-million-strong city of Jakarta to the island of Borneo (Kalimantan) or elsewhere on the island of Java, where Jakarta now stands. The idea has existed in various forms since independence in 1945, including inaugural President Sukarno's preference for Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province on Borneo.
The relocation of a national government, and the transfer of the title 'capital city' are exceedingly common throughout history. The exemplary 20th century demonstration was the construction of Brasilia, divesting the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro and bringing government closer to geographic centre of Brazil.
Nigeria's capital was transferred from the coastal metropolis of Lagos to the more central Abuja in 1991, in a sparsely populated region considered neutral ground for the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and other ethnicities that occupy the extremes of the territory. And in 2005, the Burmese military began construction of Nay Pyi Taw, a new capital for Myanmar, 320 kilometres north of Yangon.
The problems cited for the existing capitals are often the same — overcongestion, overpollution, overpopulation, prone to earthquakes or flooding, or an inconvenient location chosen by historical accident. But do relocation plans actually address any of these problems, or are they simply an escapist fantasy for politicians overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge?
Because for each of these problems there are cities that have solved them. The cities of Japan and California are well-braced against earthquakes. Dutch engineers are designing flood resistance systems for any government willing to confront the issue. And Jakarta's problems of traffic and smog are nothing other cities haven't beaten in the past.
As Foreign Policy's Gillian Terzis reminds us, "Jakartans are buying new vehicles faster than the city can construct new roads"; the city is "the world's largest metropolis without a rail system", and "the poster child for unsustainable urban development". Yet Bangkok and Mexico City held that title in recent decades, and both are making steady gains in traffic reduction and air quality alongside expansion of their urban rail systems.
The complaints about overpopulation are also misplaced. City size is neither inherently good nor bad — large cities appear overcrowded only when development planning is mismanaged. This is the real ill battling Jakarta. Tokyo, by far the world's largest city, is also one of its most sophisticated and dynamic economies. London, Paris, Seoul and Chicago are similar in size to Jakarta and remain well-functioning engines of their nations' prosperity.
Nothing stops Jakarta from achieving a similar status, even with its existing population trends, but only if starts tackling its planning problems head on, not sidestepping them. Its commitment to public transport is an obvious place to start. The city has opened its ninth and tenth BRT (bus) corridors over the new year, after several months' delay, but is postponing five more routes until it can get its act together on its first two MRT (rail) lines. On recent performance, that could take years.
As a booming and increasingly well-managed economy, and the world's fourth most populous nation, Indonesia can and should draw some inspiration from its larger neighbours. Beijing opened five new subway lines last week, with four more coming next year. And Delhi, with its new religion of infrastructure investment, is bullishly planning a metro system bigger than London's by 2017.
In this light, proposals to relocate the national government seem to rather miss the point. Yet another argument suggests that while it may not help Jakarta, it may make sense for the rest of the country.
Countries who move their capitals to smaller cities tend to have more balanced urban systems, and, as a corollary, more even economic development. Australia, Brazil, Canada, West Germany before reunification, and the USA exemplify this pattern. Nigeria is slowly heading the same way. National governments that remain in their largest city for too long begin to neglect outlying regions, as the UK sees in Scotland, and as the Philippines sees in Mindanao. The interaction between the large capital's business and policy communities and the national leaders cause the latter to mistake the good of the city with that of the nation. Witness Jacques Attali founding French industrial policy on the idea that its landlocked capital needs a seaport!
With Jakarta closely associated with the Javanese ethnic majority in many minds, and with separatist movements in Aceh, West Papua and other areas, moving the capital to neutral territory might be the same inclusive gesture that Abuja offered Nigeria. It will also help Indonesia's national leaders see more clearly the development issues in second-tier cities like Surabaya and Medan.
But we may also ask, does a country even need a capital city anymore? With the long term shift away from central authorities like monarchs to pluralistic democratic institutions, multiple branches of government, and decentralisation to provinces and municipalities, there is little reason to retain the conceit of a single, enduring seat of power. South Africa's 'capital' is split over three cities: administration in Pretoria, legislature in Cape Town, and judiciary in Bloemfontein. The European Union's government functions are scattered across Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. Japan and Ethiopia have periods of their history where the seat of power moved with each new leadership. Information, communication and aviation technology all make contemporary leaders extraordinarily mobile, and these changes will steadily give rise to new institutions of government.
Whatever the dream, a reevaluation of the national urban system and the institutions that generate it is warranted for the good of the country. But for the good of its cities, the basics of demographic projection, development planning, inclusive governance and infrastructure investment must be foremost in leaders' minds, wherever they choose to commune.