MUDIK – The Annual Indonesian Phenomena at the End of Ramadan
The presence of hundreds of thousands of dedicated Javanese workers – seasonal migrant laborers, skilled workers, right up to professionals – in Bali undoubtedly boosts the economy and keeps things running smoothly on this island of a thousand ceremonies.
So when Lebaran, the Indonesian term for Idul Fitri holidays at the end of Ramadan, looms close the island braces itself for a mass exodus of a large portion of the workforce. Construction and production come screeching to a halt. For the majority who cannot afford air travel (even if there were enough flights), the main artery from Denpasar to the harbour at Gilimanuk becomes an asphalt gauntlet for the brave and desperate.
Once they get to Gilimanuk long lines await – the line of backed up cars and buses reaches 5-6 kilometers back. It can take up to ten long hours before cars even get to the ticket booth, let alone get on one of the 30 ferries that will log 450 trips across the straits daily between them that have been provided this year.
Last year more than two hundred thousand passengers went across to Java. At the time this story is being filed around ninety thousand passengers have already left. These figures are conservative. And once they get to Java and head for their respective homes the trials are still not over. So far several hundred motorists have lost their lives during this annual exodus which Indonesians call “Mudik” or “heading back upstream”.
While the port authorities and the police have done their best to provide assistance to the scores of thousands of motorcyclists by erecting canopies, installing fans, putting in rows of portable toilets and other facilities, it is still a test of the travelers’ patience, particularly young children and infants, many of whom ride cramped with their parents on small motorscooters for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. Even before getting on the ferry there are extensive checks on each individual vehicle run by squads of police and finance companies try to check every vehicles plates against a computerized list. Teams of contracted spotters ring through number plates to a temporary nerve center where it gets checked. When asked, one of the spotters admitted that some might get away, then added with a grin: “But not many..”
And of course with numbers like this there are bound to be some mishaps: at one point an announcement come over the port’s PA system with an appeal from a distraught mother on the other side in Ketapang for help in locating her child who had managed to get left behind in Bali at the last moment. But despite the chaos, for most the rare opportunity to meet up with loved ones is too valuable to forgo.
A typical case is “N” who is travelling to Jember with her one year old daughter and her husband and a pile of luggage – tote bags, plastic bags, you name it – on their 125cc automatic scooter. She and her husband work in Sanur, 6 days a week through the year. They take one holiday a year during Lebaran, 2 days plus of which are taken up with the road trip there and back. In all they will be lucky to spend 8 days with their family before making their way back: “But that’s just the way it is, Mas” she said with a smile.
see photo essay
These days when I look out my office window in the small town of Ubud, inanely voted ‘best city in Asia’ by Condé Nast, I can only see a kilometer long traffic jam. And even when I am not watching I hear engines rumbling and the sharp trill of the whistles of locally appointed, sarong-clad parking attendants frantically trying to extract order out of chaos.
This is my street, it has been for 25 years. But it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the quiet backstreet I moved to in the 1980s. This isn’t a rant about traffic. At least not just traffic. It’s beyond that. What has happened on this island is that it has gone past its carrying capacity in terms of infrastructure, environment, and socio-cultural balance. That’s longhand for “a mess”.
There are all kinds of startling examples. You know all those villas you see with beautiful rice field views? On average 750 hectares of rice fields a year are converted into urban sprawl since the 1980s, not a little of it going to tourism related projects. Tellingly, when I googled ‘rice field conversion in Bali’ up high on the list were sites selling villas.
Need more elbow room? Currently the island’s population stands at 3.9 million. In 1978 when I first moved to Ubud permanently the population was just a bit more than half of that – around 2.4 million. Since the 1960s more than 200,000 Balinese have ‘transmigrated’ under an official World Bank sponsored program, leaving their island to carve out a new existence on ‘outer’ islands. Ironically, now there are more than double that number of migrant workers have arrived in Bali from other islands to compete for jobs here.
The air has become polluted – there is a permanent ring of brown smog around the island that is plain to see when you arrive by air. Water is fast becoming a flash point – per room the average hotel uses around 300 liters of water daily, five times as much water as the average Balinese family of 4-5 people. Do the math’s: there are upward of 80,000 hotel rooms on the island today, four times the number recommended by a government survey done years ago.
Crime, not to be left behind, has also increased. In 2009 there were 10,453 cases reported, up 22% from the year before. Bearing in mind that in countries like Indonesia there are huge numbers of unreported crime, that is a pretty sobering statistic for so-called paradise. Recently in the area around Ubud, where my children grew up running wild in the rice fields, there have been two young children kidnapped.
I really didn’t want to get into so much detail, or turn this into a simple litany. But sometimes detail helps to visualize the change. So with these enormous changes and chaotic development why isn’t there more being done? Sure one can’t stop time and change, but surely one can minimize the damage? Is it really beyond our capacity to alleviate the situation?
In the 1990s, a group of friends and I started an environmental foundation. We were concerned about rubbish disposal as well as water pollution and overexploitation. A certain high ranking, national-level tourism official at the time grumbled at me to the effect that Bali didn’t belong to locals but to the tourism industry. As those were Suharto days there really wasn’t much else to do but swallow, though we did our best to stand up against what we considered outrageous projects.
What was already clear then was that Bali is an economic powerhouse, extremely lucrative to those who were well positioned. Would there ever be a “just king” entering to the rescue? Then came the heady early days of Reformasi in 1998 when Suharto first fell. Suddenly the catch word was “empowerment”. But since then we have fallen back into a similar pattern of apathy and pessimism.
A couple of years ago the current governor, Mangku Pastika, came into office with a slew of promises. One of them was vastly improved public transport to ease the traffic. Now, finally, we hear that in October or November the “SARBAGITA” (an acronym of Denpasar, Badung, Gianyar, Tabanan) bus system is to start trials – on three of the 17 planned routes. Of course I am ready to give it a chance, yet with motorcycle outlets still selling literally thousands of scooters a month I am not overly optimistic. Hopefully this ‘affordable, convenient and comfortable’ system doesn’t experience too many delays.
But let’s not imagine the whole situation in Bali depends on Mangku Pastika’s whim and will. Since ex-President Habibie’s rushed decentralization that was rammed through legislation in 1999, power shifted dramatically from governors down to the next echelon, the bupatis or ‘regents’. What was glossed over was the fact that overnight, throughout Indonesia, the demand for highly trained and educated government officials would go through the roof. Imagine that from having specialized staff manning specific sectors in some 29 provincial governments, suddenly we needed qualified staff to handle similar sectors in more than 500 kabupaten or regency government offices. Eleven years later we are still shorthanded.
Decentralization also meant less supervisory authority over decisions made. Kabupatens became fiefdoms. Ironically it became more desirable in some ways to be Bupati rather than higher ranking governor, and all manner of abuse popped up over the country. Bali was no exception, and nowadays nobody seems to care about strangling the goose that laid the golden egg.
Given the fact that half the court cases brought by President SBY’s government against corrupt officials have ended in acquittals, the prospects for that deterrent mechanism don’t look good.
What we need now is to wake up – we are inches away from hitting the wall. It will take not only inspired leadership and firm political will to push through initially unpopular measures and sacrifice, but also very professional management. There needs to be a real, working partnership between community and government re-instilling civic pride and responsibility. Neither on their own can manage this mess.