Indonesia capital aims to replace dirty taxis

Drivers resist using compressed natural gas in three-wheel bajajs
By Diyan Jari and Sugita Katyal
Updated: 3:17 p.m. ET Sept. 25, 2006

JAKARTA - For years, their acrid fumes have been as much a part of the Indonesian capital as the distinctive smell of the country’s clove cigarettes.

Now the Jakarta city government hopes the old smoke-belching motorized rickshaws or bajajs, which Indonesians pronounce as “budge eye”, may finally be able to rattle off into the sunset.

In August, Indian auto firm Bajaj Auto, maker of the three-wheel bajaj, rolled out a new compressed natural gas (CNG) model in a bid to cut pollution levels in a city almost perpetually shrouded in smog.

Six CNG-fuelled bajajs are already on the road, and government officials hope the new environmentally friendly version will eventually replace all 1,400 of the aging, bright orange vehicles rattling around on the city’s roads.

“We are optimistic that it can replace the old bajaj. The old bajaj can still operate, but gradually it will break down and the replacement will be the CNG bajaj,” Nurachman, the capital’s head of transportation, told Reuters.

“I have already tried to make the public aware. basically (we are trying to ensure) that the revenue of the drivers won’t decline and the owners can survive.”

CNG-fuelled vehicles have had a big impact in some global pollution black spots such as the Indian capital, New Delhi, but experts say the transition might not be easy in Jakarta because of fierce resistance from bajaj owners.

Previous efforts to junk the old bajajs, whose two-stroke engines belch huge clouds of smoke into the air, failed because owners and drivers said an alternative minivan was too pricey.

Apart from price, Bajaj owners say it is impossible for them to shift to the new CNG bajaj because there aren’t enough CNG stations. Just three fuel stations in the capital offer CNG.

“If the price alone is unreachable by owners, drivers and finally users, what is the point? It’s not rational and if we are forced to buy that bajaj, we will object to it,” said Hisar Gultom, secretary of the Jakarta bajaj owners’ cooperative.

Bajaj owners suggest that changing the pipes and reconditioning the engine is a cheaper alternative.

Thousands around town
The bajaj, much like the tuk tuk of Thailand but less adorned, has been on Jakarta’s streets since the 1970s.

Despite periodic plans to phase it out, it remains one of the most popular ways of getting around in the gridlocked city, now with a population of nearly 9 million.

Jakarta has some 14,000 registered bajajs and, according to some estimates, an equal number that are not licensed which ferry people around for low fares.

They spew black fumes, their drivers have a reputation for wild driving and the vehicles are the butt of many jokes, but Jakartans say the sheer convenience of being able to weave through heavy traffic makes the bajaj almost indispensable.

The low fares are another big draw: a one-kilometer ride in a bajaj could cost just 5,000 rupiah (55 cents).

Bajaj drivers too are reluctant to change.

Romli, who has been driving a bajaj for 25 years, said he welcomed the new model as it would help cut both air and noise pollution, but was worried about the possibility of CNG tank explosions, especially since many drivers are heavy smokers.

According to one study, the bajaj’s noisy engine is responsible for hearing problems in many drivers, but the drivers themselves couldn’t care less.

“I am not bothered by the smoke or the noise,” said Romli, standing on a Jakarta road as a bajaj sped past belching out a thick cloud of grey smoke.

“But I am scared that the new bajaj engine is much lower and so it will not be able to move if there is a flood in Jakarta.”

Despite the skepticism and apprehensions, Tri Buddy Wahono, general manager of marketing at Abdi Raharja, the Bajaj distributor, said they hoped to sell 5,000 CNG-fuelled vehicles by next March and eventually replace all the licensed bajajs.

Government officials said bajaj owners would not be forced to change their vehicles.

“It’s impossible to forcefully replace the old bajajs and it is impossible to phase them out immediately. Replacing the gasoline bajaj with a gas-fuelled bajaj is their choice,” said a city government official, who asked not to be identified.

“But the long-term choice of the government is the gas-fuelled bajaj.”
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.
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