The moment Leona set foot in Jakarta – a bustling metropolis of 10 million residents – she knew that she had a lot of adjusting to do.
The Bali native could deal with the heat and Jakarta’s notorious traffic congestion. However, the smog and dust in the environment was something else.
“I was shocked. Everywhere I went, the air is polluted with smoke, dust and fumes from car exhausts, people burning their rubbish and construction works. It was so overwhelming,” she told CNA.
Just months after moving to Jakarta, her asthma – which she suffered as a child and thought had gone away as she reached adolescence – returned and gradually worsened.
“I didn’t want my parents to worry, so I never told them about my health,” she said, adding that she had to secretly reallocate her monthly allowances to buy medicine, inhalers and masks.
After three years of battling the effects of Jakarta’s worsening air pollution, the 22-year old university student who only wanted to be known as Leona, decided to fight back.
“By chance, I heard that some Jakarta residents were preparing a lawsuit against the government for doing nothing about the air pollution in Jakarta and they were calling others to join as plaintiffs,” she recounted. “So I signed up.”
She is among those who started an organic movement to draw attention to the worsening pollution. While social media has multiplied the attention given to their cause, the plaintiffs are taking nothing for granted in what is expected to be a long judicial battle.
On Jul 4, Ms Leona and 30 other residents from different walks of life – activists, academics, celebrities, motorcycle taxi drivers – filed a citizens’ lawsuit against President Joko Widodo, the Environment and Forestry Minister, the Health Minister, the Home Affairs Minister as well as the Governor of Jakarta and the two provinces surrounding the capital: West Java and Banten, demanding their rights to clean air.
“There were actually more (who wanted to join in),” said Ms Ayu Eza Tiara, the lawyer in the case. “But we ignored applicants who are affiliated to political parties and those who might have conflict of interest.”
Ms Tiara said the lawsuit was a last-ditch effort to get the government to pay attention to Jakarta’s poor air quality
In 2016, a coalition of environmental groups and the Legal Aid Foundation began collecting data of just how bad air pollution in Jakarta had been, she recounted.
They spent the next two years trying to present their findings to various ministries and agencies. “Some agreed to see us. Some ignored us altogether. But all in all, no one did anything,” she said.
“They even ignored us when we gave them an ultimatum in December. We threatened them that we will take this to court if they do nothing within 60 days.”
With the presidential election in April which saw Mr Widodo securing a second term – and the subsequent legal challenge and street protests launched by his rival, former general Prabowo Subianto and his supporters – occupying the entire nation’s attention, the lawsuit was briefly put on hold.
Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Bondan Andriyanu told CNA that the activists had wanted the government to come up with a comprehensive research-based plan to reduce air pollution.
Even with the deadline pushed back for several months, “the government didn’t even provide so much as a promise that they would do that,” he said.
However, there may have been a silver lining in the delay. From Jun 19, Jakarta repeatedly ranked as the world’s most polluted city according to air quality monitor AirVisual.
The Indonesian capital had dethroned notoriously polluted cities like New Delhi and Beijing.
Jakarta’s Air Quality Index (AQI), which calculates the health risk posed by six main pollutants, peaked at an unhealthy level of 240 on Jun 27. That’s nearly half of the maximum score of 500, and 60 points shy from being considered hazardous.
It was a wake-up call. Suddenly, everyone in Jakarta was talking about the pollution and the issue gained traction on social media.
“A friend contacted me, alerting me of the fact that Jakarta had just been named the world’s most polluted city,” said professional photographer Pio Kharismayongha. “We wanted more people to be aware of this. We agreed that we should do something about it.”
Mr Pio had been regularly telling his 28,000 followers on Twitter to share their best photos of a given subject using the hashtag #SetorFoto (upload your photos). So it was natural that he initiated a modified version of the hashtag
“Always failed to get a good view while taking photos of Jakarta during the day because of how bad the air pollution is. Do you have photos showing how bad the air pollution in Jakarta is? Share it with the hashtag #SetorFotoPolusi (upload your pollution photos) if you do,” his Jun 25 tweet read.
“I was shocked by the photos they uploaded. I always knew that Jakarta is polluted. But the photos made everyone realised just how polluted the city really is,” the photographer said.
Even today, social media users are regularly uploading photos of the capital shrouded in a mist of fumes, dust and smoke or sharing a screen grab of the day’s AQI. “It has become an obsession,” he said.
Soon everyone was talking about Jakarta’s poor air quality and local media started to pay attention to the group of residents preparing to sue the government.
“We had always planned on lodging the lawsuit this month. We didn’t time it or anything. It was all a coincidence. But the social media uproar gave us the confidence that people are supporting us,” the lawyer, Ms Tiara said.
“It was impossible to add more plaintiffs, but people lined up stating that they are willing to provide testimonies in court.”
A 2016 study by non-government organisation Committee to Phase out Leaded Fuel (KPBB) said that vehicles accounted for 47 per cent of the air pollution in the capital.
Emissions from factories were second at 22 per cent, followed by road dust and households (11 per cent each), waste incineration (five per cent) and construction work (four per cent).
Amid a growing public backlash, the Environment and Forestry Ministry has attempted to cast doubt on data provided by AirVisual.
“We have our own data and our own standards. And according to our data, the air quality was still in the moderate level. Only vulnerable people like babies and the elderly are at risk,” ministry spokesman Djati Witjaksono Hadi told CNA.
“We don’t know how AirVisual got their data from and what methodology they use. That’s why we want to meet these environmental groups and plaintiffs. We need to agree on which data we want to use.”
Chief of the Jakarta provincial government’s environment office, Andono Warih also doubted AirVisual’s assessment.
“As far as I know, they based their assessment from satellite images and readings taken from several monitoring stations at the city centre. We have monitoring stations spread all across Jakarta, not just the city centre. So on average, the city’s air quality is not that bad,” he said.