Two time zones, one India: Good idea!

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Two time zones, one India: Good idea!

Far too many people in India operate in a time zone that is not an appropriate diurnal cycle for them. Adopting two time zones for India is something that the Government ought to consider and look to implement

This article was originally published in April 2014. However, in light of this Government being unafraid to take monumental decisions that may lead to initial chaos, such as demonetisation, this writer believes it’s a debate that needs to be re-started. While India is geographically the second-largest country not to have multiple time-zones — the People’s Republic of China being the other, maintaining a seemingly crazy ‘Beijing Time’ across the country — it could look at going beyond the compromise of Allahabad Time.

India stretches from 97.4 East in Arunachal to 68 East in Gujarat — almost 30 degrees of longitude which is more than enough to have two time-zones. There is no doubt that there will be some initial chaos, particularly to time-tables but globally several nations, particularly the United States, maintain multiple time-zones. It may not be a bad idea for the country to explore the possibility of two time zones which could well lead to greater efficiencies among the workforce and on energy consumption.

A few years ago, this columnist found himself on a ferry to Havelock Island. This picturesque and idyllic place in the Andaman and Nicobar chain is beautiful. But there is a problem. Despite being close to the equator, the sun, as per the watch, sets just after five in the evening. In Bhuj, on the other hand, during the height of summer, the sun often sets well after eight in the evening.

Indian Standard Time, which is five and a half hours ahead of the Greenwich Mean Time (+5.30 GMT), is an anachronism like many systems that were inherited from the British. In fact, India did not have any single time zone until as late as 1906. A cursory history of time in India reveals that the cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras (the three Presidencies, as the British called them) had their own time zones, and these were determined almost precisely by their geographical longitude.

Calcutta Time, adjusted for the eastern-most city, was set at +5.54 GMT; 24 minutes ahead of the current IST. Madras Time was just nine minutes behind the current IST and was the closest precursor in terms of actual time to IST. Bombay Time, on the other hand, was +4.51 GMT.

So in colonial times, there was a one-hour-nine-minutes time difference between Kolkata and Mumbai. Yet, today these cities, which are 1,650km apart, share the same time.

Only in the tea estates of Assam, where the concept of ‘bagaan time’ (estate time) exists, is there a provision for a separate time zone inside India. Bagaan time is one hour ahead of IST. Leave the tea estates though, and everything reverts to normal.

In fact, while Kolkata fell in line with IST in 1948, Mumbai retained its own individual time zone till 1955 as a result of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (as it was known then) delaying the introduction of IST in 1906. This was due to popular resentment stemming from the trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, which was taking place at that time.

In the modern age, it will be nearly impossible to set ‘odd’ time zones, although India’s compromise time zone is the only major time zone in the world to be 30 minutes out of sync with global time zones. Therefore, international news channel bulletins which take place ‘on the hour, every hour’, take place ‘on the half-hour, every hour’ in India.

Proponents of a single time zone argue that India is not as wide as China, which continues to have a single time zone (the country actually spreads across five time zones). In addition, if India were to implement two time zones, there would be utter chaos, not the least to long-distance railway schedules but also in the way business is conducted in India. And, where, single time zone proponents, often ask, would the dividing line between these time zones be?

Each of these arguments is slightly bunkum. China’s adoption of a single time zone (Beijing Time GMT+8) was a result of a communist doctrine in 1949. It is now being questioned by party officials, finally. Also, the people in Xinjiang, the country’s western-most Province, unofficially follow a time zone that is two hours behind Beijing time.

The much talked-about chaos that will ensue if India adopts two time zones, is also a bit disingenuous. Several northern countries in Europe and most of the US adopt Daylight Saving Times. People there put their watches back and forward twice a year. There are some missed flights and a bit of confusion, but nothing as bad as the disaster theorists have predicted. A dividing line can be decided across several States — India’s eastern States and the country’s North-East can easily have two zones.

But there is another aspect, common to the Chinese and Indian desires to maintain single time zones over vast nations — the ‘unity’ theory. A single time, a single shared experience, no matter where you are in India, unifies the nation. That is definitely a strong ideal, but also slightly flawed because it does not take advantage of the light.

It does not take a doctor to tell one that the human body works best in sunlight. Changing time zones when we travel internationally can seriously disturb physical cycles. If the sun rises too early and sets too early, or vice versa, as per the local time, it can also disturb body cycles.

Sure, growing up in Kolkata, one might get used to early sunsets, just like Mumbaikars get used to late sunrises. But being in the same time zone where the sun is high in the sky in Kolkata and barely rising in Mumbai, is strange. After all, these two cities are an hour apart by their natural time zones.

There are also economic benefits to having two different time zones; people will be able to work better and plan better, according to natural cycles rather than the one imposed by the state.

India needs two time zones to function more effectively. The fact is that the sun rises and sets in eastern and north-eastern India far too early. While IST may work at Shankargarh Fort, in Allahabad — a good basis for time in central India — it fails in the east and the west of the country.

Far too many people in India operate in a time zone that is not an appropriate diurnal cycle for them. Adopting two time zones for India is something that the Government ought to consider and look to implement. This requires an open mind and fresh thinking, and we hope that the new Government will be responsive to such ideas.


(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)

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