JAVA: Can big-city progress make it to the villages?

When I think of Jakarta as it was the first time I saw it 14 years ago, I think of it at twilight. Just after a late-afternoon monsoon storm. The lamps on the street stalls along Jalan Thamrin have misty halos, and there is only the occasional sound of tires splashing through the puddles; Jakarta had very few cars then. Water glistens on the pavement, on the soaked canvas hoods of the three-wheeled pedicabs, or betjaks,m all lined up right at the entrance of the Hotel Indonesia. In those days the newly built hotel seemed truly luxurious, one of the few modern buildings in a city of 5 million that was really just a vast agglomeration of villagelike kampongs,m with their thatched bamboo huts and open canals, their mostly unpaved roads, and their lack of electricity.

That's how it was one evening in 1967 when I stepped out of the hotel and heard a voice cry, "Hello, mister! Where are you going?" It came from one of the betjakm men; I glimpsed flashing white teeth in a bronzed, beaming face and a floppy hat and shirt soaked with rain.

I just wanted to see the sights, and the driver first pedaled to Merdeka Square, a huge open field where cows still grazed. There was Sukarno's gigantic National Monument, a pillar of Italian marble with a floodlit flame. The driver said there were 40 kilos of gold up there, costing a third of a million dollars. We drove past the glittering white presidential palace where the government of General Suharto was newly installed, past the vast steel skeleton of what was to be "the biggest mosque in the world" when finished, on to the West Irian Monument topped by a bronze giant bursting his colonial chains, and finally back to Jalan Thamrin, strung with colored lights.

Sukarno's legacy to Jakarta might have been bankruptcy and a useless pile of hollow and half-finished monuments, but in a city that seemed like a big village belonging to its betjaksm and its poor, they made a perfect setting for a guided tour. Then we visited a Chinese crocodile-breeding farm and took in part of a soccer game at Sukarno's fantastic national stadium built for the Asian Games. Caught in another monsoon downpour coming back, we took refuge in a roadside teahouse.

There was a soldier there, and after I asked him the price of rice, how much he made, and such, he became very agitated. Suddenly I found myself back in the betjak,m with Husen, my driver, who pedaled furiously into the drenching rain.

"Hey, what is this?" I shouted. "I'm getting all wet!"

Husen laughed and laughed. "Better we go, uncle," he explained at last in his broken English. "The soldier say you ask too many questions and must be 007 or kommunis.m But I say, no, you are people from another people's country and so must ask many questions."

"How can I see a village?" I asked, feeling like a drowned rats as we neared the hotel. "Would you like to see my village, tuan?m " Husen asked. He didn't mention until we were on the bus the next day that his village was 210 kilometers from Jakarta, halfway across Java.

So began what has become a rather long journey with Husen; I have since stayed in his village of Pilangsari for six months in 1970, revisiting it in 1973, 1978, 1979, and now. Because of so many return visits, Pilangsari, Jakarta, and Indonesia itself seem less places fixed in space but rather societies in flux, constantly changing in the subtle flow of time.

Another memory from 1973: Jalan Thamrin was transformed into an avenue of glass-and-concrete skyscrapers, office buildings, and luxury hotels. It had lost its semirural air and the center of Jakarta had become a kind of Potemkin inner city, one of Asia's new ghettos of affluence. At night Jalan Thamrin, ablaze with neon signs, had taken on the fizz and glitter of any big Asian capital.

The betjaks,m like the street hawkers, were now banned from this area during the daytime. But every night at 10 o'clock Husen and perhaps 50 more betjakm men would wheel their pedicabs to one end of the Blora Bridge. The bridge links the road to their squatters' settlement to Jalan Thamrin. In the shadow of the bridge, the betjakm men, impatient to enter the forbidden downtown after 10 and hustle what few late-night fares they could for tommorow's food, confronted a line of policemen.

It was always a tense, ugly scene. The cabbies, pushed from behind as their numbers grew, slowly edged forward. The police cursed them, raised their truncheons, and threatened to hit those in front. This nightly confrontation would go on until all at once, it being past 10, all the betjakm men would surge forward together, swarming like a locust army into Jalan Thamrin. The policemen could not stop them and did not try.

Husen had by then spent 18 years coming seasonally to Jakarta to pedal his betjakm whenever times in his village were lean. He'd clung to his traditional village values, but for some of the other urban migrants the old ties were starting to snap.

Five years later, in 1978, Husen had returned to Pilangsari and gone back to farming. There had been something of a miracle out in the villages. Contraception had become accepted, and yearly population growth had dropped in Java from 2.5 percent (in 1967) to 1.4 percent (in 1978). The spread of new high-yield dwarf rice and the use of fertilizer, multiple-cropping, better irrigation, and pesticides had doubled village output. Large numbers of former urban migrants -- almost everybody we knew -- had come home again to stay. As Husen put it, with a grin, "We have come onward."

Jakarta itself had changed radically. Heavy traffic in the streets had made the betjakm obsolete in all but Jakarta's outskirts. Paved roads, schools, sanitation, and electricity (60 percent of the city) had transformed most of the old atapm -roofed, bamboo kampongsm beyond recognition. The hordes of ragged, poor people one saw everywhere in 1967 were gone.

On my most recent visit to Pilangsari, one of many changes was that a young Chinese from the nearest town was building a small factory in the village to make ice and soda pop. Husen and his neighbors were pleased, because it meant 30 men and women in the village would get jobs. This was happening just as anti-Chinese riots were erupting in Solo, Semarang, Cirebon, and other Javanese towns, following similar attacks against prospering Chinese merchants in the Sulawesi port city of Ujung Pandang last winter. In both outbursts, hundreds of Chinese shops, factories, homes, and cars were burned or wrecked.

The difference, Husen said, must be that the rioters had no jobs. Nobody, he felt, would burn down a factory that gave them their livelihood. I noticed, and Husen agreed, that around Pilangsari there seemed to be a lot more betjaksm plying the roads than before. He also said some of the landless men in the village had a hard time finding continuous work.

Two years ago, at a conference in Jakarta on increasing rural employment in Java, President Suharto told the assembled economists, "What I want to know from you is howm [to increase employment]."

He has never gotten an answer. The Indonesian government has blamed left and right-wing extremists for the recent anti-Chinese rioting. Although Marxist or Muslim agitators are probably only too glad to stir the pot, most rioters have come from the huge, floating mass of jobless young Javanese village migrants who still form an ominous underclass in every city.

In 1967, when it was still a big village and an unskilled migrant could survive as a betjakm man or street peddler, they werem the essence of Jakarta. Then the spread of modern farming and multiple cropping allowed many to go back, like Husen, to villages that could once more feed them. The rest, like the men on Blora Bridge, were pushed out of sight and mind.

But enough are still there, maybe as many as 300,000 in Jakarta alone. Growing press censorship, xenophobia among top officials, and harsh crackdowns against students all seem to stem from concern that this urban army might rebel.

Joblessness among 30 million landless Javanese remains the 14- year-old Suharto government's biggest problem. And the government seems to have run out of ideas on what to do about it.

Indonesia's technocrats, once known as the "Berkeley mafia" because several of them earned their PhDs at the University of California, have produced some major economic success stories since they took over in partnership with Suharto's soldiers in 1966 amid 600 percent inflation and the economic wreckage left by Sukarno.

Despite wholesale corruption, sudden ups and downs in the oil trade, and the collapse of Pertamina (the national oil company) in 1975 with $10 billion in debts, Indonesia's economy now looks the healthiest in years. Oil and commodity prices are way up. So are foreign-exchange reserves. Oil exploration is again booming.

The rice crop, which last year was 17 million tons, may reach 21 to 22 million tons this year, thanks to the rapid adaptation of scientific methods by millions of villagers like Husen. With 37 percent of eligible couples now using contraceptives, birth control is doing well, and East Java and Bali are moving toward zero population growth.

But in villages like Pilangsari, agriculture can only do so much. With 65 percent of the 142 million Indonesians jammed onto the 51,000 square miles of Java, population density has reached an elbow-to- elbow 1,725 people per square mile. In the current, third five-year plan, Suharto's economists give strong new emphasis to creating more jobs and distributing income more evenly. Yet Indonesia has grown steadily more uneven during the past 14 years in terms of who has what share of the pie.

As recent history in postrevolutionary Mexico or India under Jawaharlal Nehru shows, compassionate rhetoric about peasant masses can go hand in hand with policies to benefit chiefly the urban middle class. (And what has really happened to Jakarta is that it has become a city of the new middle class, with little place anymore for the peasant migrant.)

So, what's to be done? The villagers themselves seem to know. In a survey I made last year of 35 widely scattered Javanese villages, interviewing almost 250 men and women, they put their needs, in a descending order of priority, as better irrigation, better highways, rural electrification, more schools, credit for small-scale industry and workshops, and technical training.

If you happen to go to Java straight from South Korea or Taiwan, the contrast is obvious. In South Korea a six-lane superhighway zooms right down 350 miles from the demilitarized zone to Pusan; in Taiwan another zooms right down 240 miles from Taipei to the island's southern tip. These highways link villages that are almost totally literate, electrified, and dotted with smokestacks from decentralized small- scale industry. In these villages you find TV sets, refrigerators, and all sorts of other electrical appliances, plus power tillers and other modern farm tools. Many are made by farmers' sons or daughters who also partly spend their wages to buy these consumer goods from the local factories and bring them home. Here, the rural economy surges forward.

In Java, superhighways zoom all directions out of Jakarta -- and stop. (One gets to Bogor, a hill town an hour away, another a third of the way across West Java.) To go the 620 miles from one end of Java to the other, you have to risk life and limb on bus-truck-car-pedicab- bicycle-pedestrian-clogged two-lane highways. Java's villages are 55 percent literate but less than 1 percent electrified. Transmission lines soar over Java's 35,000 villages but supply power just to industry, government installations and the rural and urban middle class.

It is possible to bring a modern highway system, literacy, rural electrification, credit systems, a free market, and 10,000 small factories and workshops to rural Java in 10, 15, or 20 years. Too much time has been lost already. (Admittedly such ventures have been stalled because the government first put its priorities on agriculture and population control. But gross corruption has also bit deeply into revenue that should have gone into these projects.)

Rural electrification could come quickly. A $2 billion project, assisted by loans from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, calls for massive power generation from Sumatra's Bukit-Asam coal mine and Java's Suralaya steam plant, a far-reaching grid-transmission system, and local distribution of power by substations. By spending an extra $350 million to $400 million a year, it would be possible to light up all 35,000 Javanese villages in 10 to 15 years. Indonesia could pay for this out of earned oil revenues.

It will take more time to electrify the outer islands of Indonesia, but they are generally developing vigorously and lack Java's crushing population pressures.

Indonesia's 4 to 5 million ethnic Chinese seem ready to invest. Yet the Suharto government has imposed restrictions on the Chinese in favor of pribumi,m or Javanese businessmen. (Such restrictions, however, backfire because the Chinese figure out how to get around all the new red tape.)

The Japanese are also prepared to help. This year they are lending experts on the technology, financing, and management of small-scale industry to the Indonesian government. They will also start developing small-scale engineering shops for subcontracting, linked to some 200 joint ventures Japan is involved in.

As Japanese Ambassador Masao Sawaki explained it to me, "What we'll do, starting in 1981, is transfer the parts for assemblage, one by one, to local small-scale industries. For example, transistors are very simple. We'll teach the Javanese villagers to make them. Give them the raw material and say, 'Here, you make it.' If they bring in a product that is not acceptable, we will teach them again. The Indonesians are now deciding what parts they want to make."

The Japanese, like everybody else, are concerned that last month's anti-Chinese riots signal a rising tide of xenophobia.

But it is not the villagers who are experiencing this xenophobia. Uprooted villagers may experience it -- those without jobs and without hope, caught in cities where there is no longer any place for them. And Jakarta's fast-growing middle class may experience it -- those frantically pursuing Western life styles.

But the villagers are not that way. They grasp what technology has done for them in agriculture and are naturally eager for all the industrial skills they can get. It's a new spirit, elan, and dynamism one finds in every village. Suharto's government reminds one of an ancient Javanese king, who, when villagers brought him bananas in tribute, contemptuously threw them aside. Had he unpeeled the bananas, he would have found that each one contained solid gold.

Suharto's biggest problem is also his greatest untapped resource: the energy and dynamism of Java's villagers. They could give him the answer he needs if he'd only go, and ask, and listen.

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