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Smog in Jakarta’s city centre in 2018. Photo: AFP

Jakarta’s air quality is terrible – and Indonesia’s President Widodo is among those to blame

  • The president is among the seven officials who have been found guilty of environmental negligence over air pollution in the capital
  • According to a court ruling, Widodo is now required to take serious action, including setting adequate national ambient air quality standards
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is among the seven officials found guilty by a Jakarta court of environmental negligence over air pollution in the capital.
In a civil lawsuit, the Central Jakarta District Court on Thursday ruled that Widodo must set adequate national ambient air quality standards “to protect the people’s health, the environment, and the ecosystem”, though it dismissed a claim the defendants had violated a human right for health, including clean air.

The standard for annual ambient air quality is 10 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre of air, according to the World Health Organization, while Indonesia’s national standard is 15 micrograms.

Judge Saifuddin Zahri also granted the plaintiff’s demand that serious action be taken by the president and the other defendants – the environment and forestry, interior, and health ministers, as well as the governors of Jakarta, West Java, and Banten.

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They will now have to create a number of strict regulations on air quality, particularly Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, who was told to sanction individuals or businesses that do not meet the emissions quality standard; monitor the implementation of the ban against outdoor burning of rubbish; and conduct periodic emissions tests on old vehicles.

The 32 plaintiffs of the lawsuit, which was filed in 2019, are Jakarta residents who count among their numbers activists, artists, teachers, and other residents suffering from pollution-related diseases.

The verdict reading has been postponed eight times due to factors such as pandemic-related grief and illness, which forced the Capital Coalition On Air Pollution – the team behind the lawsuit – to file a complaint to the Judicial Court and Supreme Court’s monitoring body last week.

An environmental activist in the courtroom arranges her protective mask with the words “Clean Air?” on it in Indonesian Photo: Reuters

Ayu Eza Tiara, a lawyer from the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute and a member of the coalition’s advocacy team, praised the ruling.

“We are really, really satisfied and we appreciate the ruling made by the judges. We did not expect the judges to read all the documents that we provided and consider all the witnesses or experts that we presented,” she told This Week in Asia.

“However, we also had some disappointments, including regarding our demand for [a ruling on] human rights violations that were not granted by the judges.”

Ayu hopes the defendants do not file an appeal in court so the government “can soon establish a team to evaluate the air pollution condition in Jakarta”.

“But we are ready to continue to fight if they appeal the ruling. We did not fight for just one or two months, we have been fighting for four years now. This court case has taken two years, but we did our research for two years, too.”

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It is unclear whether the defendants will appeal. Fadjroel Rachman, Widodo’s spokesperson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ayu said the next step would be to monitor the implementation of the ruling, so it “does not go to waste”.

Like other Asian mega cities, Jakarta, home to more than 10 million people, is shrouded in smog from traffic, industry, and coal plants. A recent Greenpeace report found that the level of nitrogen dioxide – a pollutant released when fuel is burned – dropped by 27 per cent in April last year, a month after the pandemic hit Indonesia and restrictions forced most people indoors.

However, it had rebounded 25 per cent by this April, underlining the persistent toxic content in Jakarta’s air despite a decline in people’s movement.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Widodo guilty of pollution negligence