Environmental Concerns, Rising Costs Plague China’s Flagship Indonesian Project

Ronna Nirmala
Environmental Concerns, Rising Costs Plague China’s Flagship Indonesian Project A worker pushes a wheelbarrow near the Walini tunnel construction site for the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway in West Bandung regency, Indonesia, Feb. 21, 2019.

An ongoing China-backed high-speed railway project in Indonesia has worsened air quality, clogged canals and damaged homes of many people who live along the 89-mile stretch of the future line, residents told BenarNews.

The Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project’s cost has shot up as well – from an estimated U.S. $6 billion to as much as $7.9 billion, according to a government official.

Some of those residents affected by the project said they had been threatened for airing their concerns, but a consortium of Chinese and Indonesian companies building the rail line denied any intimidation or environmental damage. The consortium noted it had appointed consultants to comply with construction regulations.

Sri Rama Aryadhana, who lives in a gated neighborhood in Bandung, said his house developed cracks because of the construction project.

“In November, they started piling and drilling, using heavy equipment. Since then, there has been damage not only to my house, but also other residents’ houses in this neighborhood,” Rama, 44, told BenarNews.

Residents’ attempts to hold a dialogue with the company had been unsuccessful, Rama said.

“At the beginning of the project, they even sent security forces, who said anyone who obstructed the project would be dealt with,” he said.

Rama and his neighbors then complained to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), which has summoned the management of PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), the consortium building the railway, to appear for questioning later this month.

Since construction began in 2017, the Jakarta-Bandung rail project, the country’s first high-speed rail, has been dogged by criticism about its impacts on surrounding areas, as well as concerns about rising costs.

Launched by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2016, the rail line is expected to shorten the travel time between the Indonesian capital and Bandung to 40 minutes from three hours, officials said. But it has seen cost overruns of as much as $1.9 billion, according to Deputy State-Owned Enterprises Minister Kartika Wirjoatmodjo.

The company has blamed the overrun on unexpected expenditure including land acquisition.

Agung Budi Waskito, the chief executive of PT Wijaya Karya, which leads the consortium of local companies that holds a 60 percent stake in the rail project, said in April it was negotiating for China to increase its stake in the project, because of the cost increase.

It is the flagship Indonesia project of China’s One Belt, One Road, Beijing’s estimated U.S. $1 trillion-plus infrastructure program to build a network of railways, ports and bridges across 70 countries.

‘Government’s response has been slow’

Meiki Paendong, executive director of the environmental group Walhi in West Java province, said residents complained about how the project had created social and environmental harm.

Complaints from residents in areas affected by the project include clogged sewers, water and air pollution, flooding during the rainy season and excessive noise.

“Their neighborhoods were flooded because drainage channels were blocked by backfill and the company did not build alternative drainage,” Meiki told BenarNews.

In addition to flooding, a 25-acre rice field in West Bandung regency was damaged because the irrigation canal had been clogged, Meiki said.

In Cimahi town near Bandung, residents are worried about threats of landslides after soil there developed cracks because of blasting method used in tunnel construction, said Meiki.

In February 2020, the Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing (PUPR) ordered the contractor to suspend construction on the entire project for two weeks to allow the company to address safety and environmental issues.

The suspension came after huge traffic disruptions on the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road caused by floods.

But Meiki said the problems affecting residents remained unresolved.

“The government is only concerned about the impact on the toll road, but not on the residents. Because up to this day, there has never been a fair solution for the residents,” said Meiki.

Many affected residents don’t make formal complaints, he said

“There is skepticism [among the residents] because the government’s response has been slow, and they were subjected to intimidation,” said Meiki.


Cracks are seen on the floor of Sri Rama Aryadhana’s house, which he said has been damaged by construction work on the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway project in Bandung city, Indonesia. [Photo courtesy Sri Rama Aryadhana]

‘Either we move, or they move’

Komnas HAM said it had summoned the chief executive of KCIC to appear before the commission on July 22.

“This summons is related to the masterplan for the construction of the high-speed train, the environmental impact analysis and their measures to prevent violations of human rights,” Komnas HAM Commissioner Beka Ulung Hapsara told BenarNews.

Bandung city’s Rama said complaints had also been lodged with other institutions, but there had been no resolution.

A meeting with representatives of KCIC facilitated by the West Java Environmental Agency did not yield any results, he said.

“The impacts [of the construction] are real and there’s evidence. What we want is for them to acknowledge that we have suffered from the impacts, take responsibility and buy our land,” Rama said.

“It’s either we move, or they move.”

KCIC will answer the summons and is ready to hold dialogue with the residents, company spokeswoman Mirza Soraya said.

“PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia China is cooperating and ready to sit down with residents to discuss environmental impact-related complaints submitted by the community,” Mirza said in a statement to BenarNews.

Mirza said the cause of damage to houses could not yet be established and that residents in the Bandung neighborhood rejected a survey requested by the company before the project started.

“KCIC and contractors did not obtain comparative data on the conditions of the buildings before and after the work was carried out,” said Mirza.

Mirza also claimed noise that residents complained about was not from the rail project work alone.

“Noise has increased because the project location is adjacent to a toll road. However, noise levels gradually decrease as construction progresses,” she said.

Mirza also denied accusations that the company had resorted to intimidation.

“The presence of security personnel from the military and police at the construction site is not intended to intimidate residents, but part of standard security procedures involving national strategic projects.”

Project progress

The 143-km (88.8-mile) Jakarta-Bandung rail line was scheduled to start operations this year, according to a report in The Jakarta Post in April 2020.

But it is 74 percent finished and is expected to be completed by the end of 2022, Deputy State-Owned Enterprises Minister Kartika said.

Jodi Mahardi, spokesman for the coordinating ministry of maritime affairs and investment, said the government was committed to completing the project by next year.

“We will see to it that the critical paths and targets can be achieved so that the goal to begin operations in December 2022 can be realized,” Jodi told BenarNews.


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