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Indonesia: Jakarta court backs residents' clean air bid

Tria Dianti Jakarta | Arti Ekawati
September 16, 2021

A court has ordered President Joko Widodo and other top officials to take measures to tackle air pollution. It's a landmark ruling for the residents who filed the case, but not everyone is celebrating.

Jakarta's smog-hidden skyline
Air pollution in Jakarta is among the worst in the worldImage: Bay Ismoya/AFP/Getty Images

Indonesian government under pressure

Indonesia's Central Jakarta District Court on Thursday ruled partially in favor of Jakarta residents who took the country's president and six top senior officials to court over air pollution.

"All the defendants have committed an unlawful act," one of the judges, Syaifuddin Zuhri, said, delivering the ruling in the landmark case.

The court told President Joko Widodo to improve air quality nationwide to a level that will not damage the health of citizens or harm the environment and in line with scientific research.

The other top ministers and governors were also ordered to take a number of steps to combat air pollution.

While the court agreed with much of the plaintiffs' case, the judges rejected the allegation that actions of the defendants violated human rights.

protesters in Jakarta stand in a line outside the courthouse holding signs about the climate
Protesters gathered outside the court in Jakarta ahead of the rulingImage: Willy Kurniawan/REUTERS

Background to the court case

In 2019, Jakarta ranked as the city with the world's worst air quality, according to AirVisual, a website that monitors air quality across the globe.

Prompted by the periods of thick smog, more than 30 Jakarta residents filed a lawsuit at the Central Jakarta District Court in July 2019. They demanded the government provide policies in support of the environment and clean air for its citizens.

In addition to the president, they lodged the complaint against the ministers of environment, health, and home affairs, as well as the governors of DKI Jakarta, West Java, and Banten province.

Air pollution in the city remains high: QAir's World Air Quality report for 2020 said Jakarta was the ninth-worst capital city globally in terms of levels of PM.2.5, or fine particulate matter, an air pollutant that can be dangerous to human health in high levels.

Key points from the court ruling

In addition to improving air quality in the country, the court ruled that the president, "is also required to supervise the governors of DKI Jakarta, Governor of Banten and Governor of West Java in the inventory of cross-border emissions of DKI Jakarta."

The judges required the home affairs minister to calculate the loss of health in relation to the air pollution in Jakarta. The calculation then must be used as the basic consideration when formulating an action plan to control air pollution by the Jakarta governor.

The governor must also apply sanctions for violations, including to motorcyclists who do not comply with the emissions standards in their vehicles.

"All of this policy must be informed immediately to the public, including the new quality standards of emission," said Zuhri.

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Cause for celebration?

Bondan Ariyanu from Greenpeace welcomed the decision saying that: "The main point is that the panel of judges said that the defendants were proven to have committed acts against the law."

"We can say that this is the success for citizens who filed lawsuits that were granted by the judge… but sadly it [harmful air pollution levels] is not considered as an act against human rights," Bondan told DW.

He said it was important that citizens monitor the government to make sure that they will act in line with the verdicts.

Khalisah Khalid, one of the plaintiffs, said he felt grateful and relieved with the decision, even if it was only partially granted. "For us it was a victory, at least all important decisions were granted and the government's negligence was proven," he said.

Elisa Sutanudjaja, another plaintiff, said she still felt skeptical: "I'm not satisfied... We don't want any compensation, we just want an improvement in emissions standards and review of projects that emit major air pollution such as coal power plants are reduced," she said.  She said she was hoping for a change in public policy.

The plaintiff's legal team, Ayu Eza Tiara, said that the judges' decision worked in favor of all citizens. She said she hopes that the defendants will accept the verdict and immediately focus on making efforts to improve air quality rather than filing an appeal.

Presidential spokesman Fadjroel Rahman said decisions regarding any further action would fall on the environment minister, news agency Reuters reported.

The Jakarta governor's office said they were reviewing the decision.

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Clean air still not a priority

Puji Lestari, an environmental engineering researcher from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in West Java Province told DW prior to the ruling that many people in the country still prioritize the economy over the air quality.

She said that this overlooks that clean air plays a very important role in human life and this affects the economy.

"People are not aware of [the impact] of air pollution before they feel it directly. Usually, when people are affected, such as by smog, the visibility is severely lowered, they suddenly realize it," Puji Lestari told DW.

"Air pollutants that enter the lungs can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma. The long-term effects [of these illnesses] include acute illness, decreased productivity, inability to work and loss of income sources," she explained.

How could Indonesia clamp down on air pollution?

An environmental expert from Indonesia's Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB), Dodiek R Nurrochmat, suggested that the government could apply fines to ensure law enforcement.

The government could do this by setting a certain threshold limit on emissions at a specific site. If the site exceeds this limit, the firm would be obligated to halt operations until it can meet the new pollution standards. This way, the factory does not produce more emissions, he said.

Another approach, known as the reliability approach, would still allow the business to operate while at the same time improving the quality standards set by the government. Victims who are legitimately harmed or affected by the pollution in the meantime would be entitled to receive compensation from the business, such as for medical treatment or daily living expenses.

"Which one will be applied in Indonesia? It depends. As far as I know, these are two approaches that can be used here," he said.