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Bureaucracy to blame for regional haze calamity

  • Bureaucracy is no doubt the chief culprit in creating and condoning the perennial haze problem in this region. If this root cause is not tackled, there is no way for us to address the issue once and for all. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

Translated by DOMINIC LOH
Sin Chew Daily

The forest clearings in neighboring Indonesia are anything but new. The problem has been ongoing for more than two decades now, or even longer. As early as 1970s, there were already reports of haze from forest clearings in Indonesia. Back then, nevertheless, it occurred only on an intermittent basis..

Large scale and more regular haze emerged more recently during the 1990s, when the Indonesian government began to systematically develop the agricultural economies of Sumatra and Kalimantan. The severe haze problem in 1997, in particular, took Malaysia and Singapore off guard, subsequently giving rise to an Asean initiative to fight transboundary haze through concerted effort.

The question is, the haze disaster that began four decades ago and the almost 20 years of regional effort to battle transboundary haze have not produced any remarkable result up till this moment. In its stead, the situation today has gotten even worse than in 2013.

The history of haze occurrence could be traced back during Suharto's time and then BJ Habibie, Gus Dur, Megawaiti, Susilo to Joko Widodo. Along the way we have also changed three prime ministers. But, what have these two governments, along with Singapore and the entire Asean, done to reverse the catastrophic situation? Or should we ask why nothing has been done at all?

Sure enough the problem is highly complicated and it entails a broad spectrum of issues such as development policies, economic interests, the powers of local authorities and flagging environment awareness. And what puts all these into place is noxious bureaucracy.

Under the bureaucracy the interests of a handful of individuals outweigh those of the general public. To minimize the planting cost, agricultural operators and smallholders have been allowed to use the inexpensive, primitive burning method to clear the land. In the end, both the plantation conglomerates and farmers benefit but tens of millions of innocent people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are forced to pay a heavy price for their iniquities.

The power abuse and corruption derived from bureaucracy have seen the local authorities, police and military forces in Indonesia condoning the illegal burning activities. Even though Indonesia's law does prohibit illegal burning, the same has never been put into serious enforcement and violators are rarely brought to book.

In addition, such bureaucracy has made the authorities in Indonesia and neighboring countries increasingly complacent. Indeed the governments might at times respond to public outcry under pressure; such responses will never fundamentally resolve the issue in the absence of practical actions.

Despite the fact that counter-haze statements have been issued, joint meetings held and diplomatic protests made over the years, very little practical action has been adopted, if any at all.

Bureaucracy is no doubt the chief culprit in creating and condoning the perennial haze problem in this region. If this root cause is not tackled, there is no way for us to address the issue once and for all.

The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was only ratified by Jakarta as late as this year. Although this has come almost 13 years behind other regional countries, at least it marks an encouraging progress. It is hoped that the Widodo administration will take a tough and resolute stance in meeting the requirements as per the agreement.

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