Java’s 100 Million People Rub Elbows, and Bump Hips, on California-Size Island

Times Staff Writer

Central Java is the place to get close to the Indonesian people--very close.

It is the place to understand the difference between East and West on the question of personal space. Come here to rub elbows--and bump hips.

There are about 160 million people living in Indonesia, the world’s fifth-most-populous country after China, India, the Soviet Union and the United States. Nearly 100 million of them live on Java, an island smaller than California and just a fraction of Indonesia’s territory. Java’s population density is about 2,000 per square mile. (California’s is 151.4.) Around the central city of Jogjakarta, the people are packed even tighter.

Villages are anthills of activity. Every square foot of the land, the country’s most fertile, is used. Rice paddies are terraced. Vegetables grow in the yards of small, red-tiled houses. Bicycles compete for road space with tapioca root laid out to dry.


Herds of Children

Children come in herds, uniformed in maroon and white on the way to and from school. Small boys splash naked in the streams that run down from the foothills of the volcanoes, which rise in every direction in near-perfect cones.

Indonesians, and indeed other Asians, show no need for elbow room. They seem to enjoy the throng. Pushing is an unremarkable part of life. Asians shove into elevators the moment the doors open, before those inside can leave. They are world-class line crashers. Bumping and jostling in the markets and on sidewalks is not considered impolite, even among the very polite Javanese.

But the cultural accommodations made for overcrowding cannot hide Indonesia’s serious problem of population growth.


“The problem is the man-to-land ratio,” Emil Salim, minister of population and environment, said in a recent interview. Some areas have plenty of land, he said, but in others, Java particularly, the “people pressure” is crushing.

Half-Acre Farms

Many farms outside Jogjakarta are no more than half an acre in size. With each generation, a family’s land is further divided. Sixty-five percent of Indonesia’s people are under 30 years old, Salim noted, and the population projection for the year 2000 is 215 million.

The government has enticed some Javanese to move to other areas under a transmigration program but not in sufficient numbers to relieve the pressure. Rural Indonesians, banned if the land cannot support them, move to the cities, bringing with them unemployment and a host of other problems.


The solution, Salim says, is to slow the country’s annual population growth rate, now 2.1%, while boosting the economy to provide jobs. To that end, the government has an active birth control program.

“We would like to hold the population to 200 million at the turn of the century,” Salim said with a shrug, indicating that the goal is beyond reach. One factor is the government’s successful efforts to reduce infant mortality, which drives up the birth rate.

The birth control program began in the 1960s with private agencies like Planned Parenthood. Then the government got behind it.

Birth Control Popular


“President Suharto personally endorsed the program,” recalled Dr. Emanuel Voulgaropoulos, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development population office here.

Now, he said, 55% of birth-eligible Indonesian couples are practicing contraceptive birth control. The figure is higher still in Java, where the growth rate is 1.7%.

Sterilization programs are less successful, and the government does not push them, mindful of the political explosion that compulsory sterilization brought to India a decade ago.

The key to the birth-control effort is its reach, down to the village level. Indonesian society, 80% rural, revolves around the village.


“The villagers discuss everything that affects their life, even who is using contraceptives,” Voulgaropoulos, the AID official, said. “The headman keeps statistics.”

Voulgaropoulos credits the government with a solid program.

“The officials know the demographics,” he said. “They can talk rates.”

Muslims Ban Abortions


The only cultural barrier to birth control is the Muslim prohibition against abortion, and the vast majority of Indonesians are Muslim.

The area around Central Java was historically the site of great Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. Their temples remain, including the spectacular Borobudur, with its 502 figures of Buddha. But Buddhism has nearly vanished here, the Hindus long ago migrated to Bali and Islam is the predominant religion. In hotel rooms, arrows on the dresser or the ceiling point the way to Mecca for the faithful.

While no other rural area in the world rivals Central Java for density, according to Salim and others, the island’s cities are also in the big leagues of overcrowding. The slums along the canals of Jakarta, the nation’s capital and home to an estimated 8 million, are appalling, although longtime residents say they used to be worse.

Government officials recently became so frustrated by the traffic that they rounded up thousands of bechaks, the ubiquitous tricycle-taxis, and dumped them into the Java Sea. They created a “habitat for fish,” a municipal official was quoted as saying.


Close-quarters in Jakarta is being pinned to the rear of an elevator by nine or 10 other people, half of them smoking kreteks, the clove-scented Indonesian cigarettes.

But many Indonesians do not complain, except for the squeeze that overpopulation puts on jobs and schools.

Kasum, a guide, led a foreign couple up the seven levels of the Borobudur Temple, fighting through the teeming mobs of Indonesian sightseers, pushing, sidestepping, darting for advantage against the tide.

“Very popular place,” Kasum noted, without a trace of aggravation.


He was born in a village near Jogjakarta, and recently built a small house in a town nearby. He paints and does a little farming on his patch of land.

“Once a week I serve on the guard,” he said, referring to the four or five men who patrol the village at night.

Guard duty is shared by mutual agreement, and some land is also worked on a communal basis.

“It’s a small village, and we all know one another,” he said. “In Java, you have to m