Tanah Merah: The refusal of citizenship for the urban poor

The idea of citizenship is distant for most Indonesians, and even more so for the poor. The ordeal of more than 27 thousand people being denied their Jakarta ID cards for many years epitomizes the way in which the state deals with the issue of citizenship. The following is the story of the people in Tanah Merah, but represents most Indonesians' struggle with citizenship.

Tanah Merah, literally "red soil", is the name of an area located in the Plumpang district, North Jakarta. As in many other parts of Jakarta, squatting in unoccupied land is common among the urban poor, especially migrants. This population are largely former farm laborers that were pushed out from rural areas in Java after the New Order government implemented the green revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. The informal sector grew rapidly since the job opportunities promised by the manufacturing industry was only able to absorb a limited numbers of job seekers. Squatter communities grew in parallel with the expansion of Jakarta as a metropolitan city.

Tanah Merah was typical of a poor urban community in Jakarta in the New Order era, during which the city's spatial management was generally poor and dysfunctional. The settlement was intended to be a temporary shelter while the resident built permanent houses with concrete materials. The city's authority was responsible for the unofficial development of this community, and provided electricity and other public serviced for the residents of Tanah Merah. After more than two decades, Tanah Merah has become a permanent settlement, despite the city government's continued refusal to provide its residents with Jakarta ID cards.

In 1991, the state's oil and gas company (Pertamina), which claimed ownership of the Tanah Merah land, announced its plan to build a fuel depot. It instructed the people that lived in the area to surrender the land, and Tanah Merah's residents refused, leading to a long and difficult battle. A series of complex negotiation took place between Pertamina and the people of Tanah Merah, with no sign of resolution.

The dispute between the people of Tanah Merah and Pertamina was centered on a difference of view on the status of the land. The residents believed that the land they occupied belonged to the state, while Pertamina claimed the land belonged to them. The conflict was brought to court, but continued to be unresolved. In early 2012, the city's governor offered to relocate the residents of Tanah Merah, but the plan was rejected outright. The Tanah Merah dispute became embroiled into a protracted conflict between the state and the residents, and reflects the incompetently of the authority in managing Jakarta's rapid urban development.

Since the Jakarta city government perceiveed the residents of Tanah Merah as illegal squatters, they aewrere not entitled to the Jakarta ID card, and their rights as citizen were therefore rejected. Aware that their status as citizens would not be easily granted, the Tanah Merah community continueed to organize mass demonstrations and public protests, including on September 13th, 2012, under the banner of "Sedekah Bumi untuk Kebhinekaan" (Celebrating the Earth for Plurality). Indeed, the Tanah Merah residents represent come from various Indonesian ethnic groups.

The community's long ordeal finally came to an end and their demand for the ID card was granted only once Jokowi become the governor of Jakarta. On November 6th, 2013, Jokowi ordered the North Jakarta City mayor to officially establish neighborhood units (Rukun Tetangga) and community units (Rukun Warga) in Tanah Merah, and to provide ID cards for the people of Tanah Merah.

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