When I was little, Ied Al-Fitri was always one of the most fun days of the year, mostly because my entire extended family would all gather in one place to celebrate it. The minimum set would be eighteen cousins, brothers and sisters, eight adults, and the matriarch, my grandmother. As with a typical West Sumatran family, mine was all over the place and it always took quite an effort to move ourselves to a designated place.
That was about twenty years ago, when the Indonesian population was around three-quarters of today’s and urbanization was relatively limited. At the time, while the traffic might increase during the ritual homebound exodus of Ied, it never reached the extent of what we experience today, where cars line up bumper to bumper, with swarms of motorcycles zigzagging wildly, mortally threatening everything in their paths, and where the length of a trip can quadruple that of any other given day.
Yet these days, under such excursion nightmare, hundreds of thousands still mobilize themselves every single year. They are willing to wait in line for hours to get tickets; get cramped in busses, trains and ships, many without air conditioning; get completely stuck on the road; and literally risk serious injuries—and even death—due to accidents.
Irrational? Actually we are observing quite a rational behavior.
Individuals take action after considering the personal cost and benefit. For many of us, the cost of the annual homebound trip—which includes not only the actual fare but also the long hours, exhaustion, and risks—is worth the benefit of celebrating Ied with family. When said individuals bear all the cost and reap all the benefit themselves, then whatever they decide is their own business. The thing is, as we shall see, this is not the case with the annual homebound exodus.
Every time an individual decides to take the long trip home, they contribute to the traffic jam, which in turn put tremendous strain on the roads, which are built and maintained by our tax money, and inject tons of toxins and carbon into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and increasing global temperature. Said individual would also significantly increase the risk of accidents happening, since with each additional bus, car or motorcycle on the street, the probability of collisions increases proportionately. In 2008, the exodus saw over 1,300 road accidents with more than 600 fatalities, all occurred within a week, which constitutes about 100 deaths per day—had this been due to terrorist attack, drastic measures would’ve been taken. These costs are not incurred on the individual deciding to join the exodus bandwagon, but on innocent bystanders. And this is where the problem starts.
The additional costs of the Ied exodus that are borne on other people are more commonly known as negative externalities. Exodus travelers only cover for the cost of tickets, fares, gas, personal time and physical exhaustion; while the rest of us cover for the cost of traffic jams, road damages, poisonous air, increased global temperature, and risk of fatalities. These externalities should have been accounted for by the respective individuals when they weigh the cost and benefits of taking the homebound exodus; unfortunately, they are not.
In order to address the problem, the real cost incurred on the individuals taking the exodus must be increased, taking into account all the externalities. This can mean taxing tickets and fares, setting up temporary toll booths on major roads, and even temporarily increasing gas price for several days before, during and after Ied. The additional revenue should then be channeled to road maintenance, clean air campaigns, and deployment of additional police personnel.
Now you might protest because some people would then not be able to afford taking the trip home. Well actually that’s the entire point. Many people should decide that the cost—the true cost—of going home outweighs the benefit and choose to stay put. Thus we would have less poison in the air and fewer deaths. What is truly scandalous is the fact that not only the government—with our support—decides not to increase the personal cost of Ied exodus, it actually decreases it, by minimizing hikes in tickets and fares. Since the cost of exodus is set considerably lower than it should be, there are significantly more people than it should be out there on the road.
The idea that there should be less people taking the Ied exodus is actually quite popular, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate ones who have ever experienced accidents on what is supposed to be a joyous occasion. In 2008, the Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) considered making the exodus makruh—an action that is divinely discouraged. Unfortunately, most people respond better to worldly incentive than divine sanctions.
I will not downplay the benefit of celebrating Ied with our loved ones. Being able to share the love, joy, and a sense of triumph after a month fasting with the people you call home is truly a blessing. But then again, is it worth 600 lives?
My extended family now numbers more than fifty. Today we’ve made a conscious decision not to make it necessary anymore to have a big gathering during Ied. Again, this is a rational decision—the cost, and risk, of having such familial exodus during the traffic peak of the year outweighs its benefit for us. So we celebrate Ied in different places, making use of the wonder of today’s information technology to share our love and happiness with each other. We do, however, agree to have a family gathering four times a year, scheduled deliberately outside Ied. And we always have as much fun as we did twenty years ago.
An edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe