Infrastructure development in our democratic system

01 February 2019

Oleh : Wimar Witoelar 

Recently  PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global professional services network headquartered in London, published long-term global growth projections to 2050 for 32 of the largest economies in the world. The four largest economies in the world are projected to be China (1st), India (2nd), United States (3rd) and Indonesia (4th)

Projections necessarily rely on trends and assumptions, and they clearly underlie the high expectations for Indonesia. Since 1998 we have been on the path to democracy. There have been setbacks and doubts along the way, but nothing like the suffocating oppression of the Suharto years.  Even today the challenges abound, but we have proven to be capable of finding our way to a more complete democracy. The current leaders are far removed from the corrupt culture of the past, and genuine development has captured the attention of the public. Infrastructure is being built at a heady pace on land and  at sea. Highways, railroads, harbours, airports and power plants. 

To sustain the development efforts we need a good government and political stability. Currently as  people are gearing up to the presidential and legislative elections in April, an important drama is being played out in lush forests that host the Batang Toru river. A hydroelectric power plant is being prepared to face the power needs that the government has identified for many years to come. The choice is hydropower because it is sustainable and  much cleaner than the alternatives. Since its multifaceted approval by the government and numerous special agencies, detailed engineering plans have been drawn up for the construction of a river-driven hydroelectric power plant. It is specially designed to benefit from the freely running flow of the river and will not use conventional storage of water in a reservoir. This will avoid the risk of submerging villages and thousands of people as conventional hydroelectric projects normally do in Java and other parts of the world. The government has approved the project because it is designed to minimize disruption to the natural and social environment of the Batang Toru region in Southern Tapanuli. 

Infrastructure is key to development, but in a democratic society decisions must be based on popular consensus. It has be a win-win game to be genuinely reflective of the will of the people. This requires participation and understanding between the project and the many stakeholders. Ultimately investors must appreciate that in our democratic system, variety of perspectives are a necessary foundation of a large infrastructure project. 

Open communication is essential because there are many questions on the project and equally many answers. Worries have been addressed before the government authorized the North Sumatra Hydroelectric Project on the Batang Toru River. The major concerns are the survival of the rare Orangutan , the earthquake risk, the integrity of the natural and social system.

Blessing come with responsibilities. The joyful discovery of the last remaining 800 members of a rare species of Orangutan. This brought to seven the number of great ape species globally. Project scientists have followed the movements of the great apes to make sure they will not be endangered by future activities related to construction and operation of the hydroelectric power plant. The government has deployed a monitoring team to record daily activities of the orangutan. 

There are other matters that are closely watched by civil society groups. They make sure that the choices support sustainable development. Everybody stands to gain from integrity of the natural and social environment. Project engineers from the beginning have made risk management the overriding concern, with studies and government supervision. All address worries about earthquake dangers. Most importantly, the River-run technology depends on the health of the ecosystem that drives healthy flow of the river.

Clean energy is the major advantage of the hydropower and makes this the overriding energy choice over any other alternative. Clear benefits and precautionary measures support the choice, and constant monitoring on the ground should keep the project on track.

International scientists occasionally offer their views on issues related to the project. They are predominantly sectoral in focus and done from a distance. It is important that these views be taken in context with knowledge accumulated on the ground. To their credit the Indonesian government is committed to keeping the public discussion open within reasonable limits. It is up to the project owners to conduct full and honest communications with the public to enable the Batang Toru project to proceed to its successful completion. A hard and arduous path, but in Indonesia's democratic society this is the way to provide infrastructure for the needs of the people.

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