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Accidents mar Indonesia's fast-and-furious infrastructure program

Deadly 'construction failures' put Widodo in hot seat ahead of elections

Five workers were injured when a box girder they were installing collapsed at an LRT construction site in East Jakarta. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

JAKARTA -- A string of accidents is threatening to undermine Indonesian President Joko Widodo's signature infrastructure development drive. Though the causes remain unclear, the president's political rivals have seized on the problems ahead of local and presidential elections, blasting the administration for pushing projects too hastily.

Just a month after Widodo opened a railway connection to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, heavy rain triggered a landslide at a rail underpass near the airport on Feb. 5. Tumbling concrete and soil crushed a passing Honda Brio, killing the female driver and injuring the other passenger. Railway operations were suspended for three days.

The landslide occurred a day after a deadly accident at a construction site for a commuter rail line in Central Jakarta. A heavy crane fell over, killing four workers and injuring at least one other. 

These are the latest in a series of at least 14 accidents involving infrastructure projects over the past several months -- 10 in Jakarta and its suburbs. The total death toll stands at nine.

The troubles have coincided with a pickup in construction, after sluggish funding and progress in the first half of Widodo's presidency. Most of the cases are still under investigation, but skepticism is building over the quality of the infrastructure and the government's ability to fulfill its ambitions. 

Some observers see a combination of factors at play: the unprecedented scale and variety of the projects, coupled with pressure on builders to complete them quickly -- in many cases by 2019, when Widodo is expected to seek re-election.

Consider the Jakarta LRT, the capital's first light rail transit network. The project should have been launched in 2015, but due to funding and other kinks, construction did not begin until January 2017. Despite the long delay, the target for completion was left unchanged -- before the Asian Games in August. The government wants athletes to be able to use the LRT to avoid the city's notorious traffic jams.

"The train carriages will arrive in April," Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan told reporters in December. "God willing, [the line] will be able to start operations in July at the latest."

On Jan. 22, however, workers were installing a box girder for elevated tracks near a velodrome in East Jakarta when the girder collapsed, injuring five of them.

Franky Rivan, an analyst at Mirae Asset Sekuritas Indonesia, is among those who believe rushed work is to blame.

"The LRT that will connect the velodrome, [built by] Wijaya Karya, is the fastest LRT construction because it is aimed for the Asian Games," said Rivan, who has been following state contractors involved in infrastructure projects, such as Wijaya Karya and Waskita Karya. "But they shouldn't have rushed the completion."

Opposition politicians took the opportunity to criticize the Widodo administration's election-oriented deadlines. Lawmakers are reportedly planning to summon and interrogate government officials and construction companies over the "construction failures."

"Simultaneous developments running on tight deadlines surely afflict moral burden to anyone, including construction companies," said lawmaker Nurhasan Zaidi of the Prosperous Justice Party. "The government must bear responsibility."

There is a shortage of qualified workers across all levels -- including laborers and engineers -- so they are overstretched

Dradjat Hoedajanto, chairman of the Indonesian Society of Civil and Structural Engineers

Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono also pointed to the human element. 

"We observed that many of the accidents happened on Saturday [or] Sunday," Hadimuljono told Kompas TV in an interview. "So there may have been carelessness, which we must acknowledge as human error."

Police have blamed human error in at least one case -- the deadly crane accident on Feb. 4. The operator of the crane has been detained and named as a suspect, with the authorities ruling out equipment failure.

Dradjat Hoedajanto, chairman of the Indonesian Society of Civil and Structural Engineers, spoke broadly about an unprepared labor force. Of the 8.1 million construction workers in Indonesia, less than 10% have proper certification, according to the Public Works Ministry.

"Human resources in the construction sector are probably not well-prepared to do so many [jobs] and have to complete them in such a short time," Hoedajanto said. "There is a shortage of qualified workers across all levels -- including laborers and engineers -- so they are overstretched."

Obfuscation of the investigations has also prompted whispers about unsuitable appointments of contractors and subcontractors, which Hoedajanto said are frequently based on "forced efficiency."

"Winners of the bids are often those who offered the cheapest prices," he said. "That's problematic."

Five state-owned construction companies -- Waskita Karya, Wijaya Karya, Adhi Karya, Hutama Karya and Pembangunan Perumahan -- have snapped up the majority of the transportation projects. Private builders have found themselves with only a small slice of the pie, despite the government's calls for their participation in the infrastructure program. 

The state companies have only said they are looking into the accidents. The Public Works Ministry, meanwhile, has so far only issued a reprimand to Waskita, the contractor behind nearly half the accident-hit projects.

The reprimand was intended to nudge the company to "fix the work system and address [the issue of] construction supervisors, so they will be more careful," said Arie Setiadi Moerwanto, the ministry's director general. "Waskita has followed up [on the reprimand]. Let's say that they've changed the system."

The ministry last month formed a Construction Safety Committee to investigate the accidents and evaluate related projects. It also plans to set up a Building Safety Committee to evaluate the infrastructure once construction is completed.

But apart from brief halts of the affected projects, there is no indication that the government is willing to change its fast-and-furious approach.

Widodo last week launched the construction of what will be the first toll road in West Sumatra -- part of the Trans-Sumatra project, which will connect the southern and northern tips of the island with a total of 2,800km of pavement.

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