Time for a Change

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

Pradyut Bordoloi | File photo UNI

My colleague Pradyut Bordoloi, the Congress MP from Assam’s Nagaon, rose in the Lok Sabha this week to demand a separate time zone for the Northeast region. His logic is impeccable: “In the Northeast, and in Assam for instance, the sun rises a few hours earlier”, he explained. “As a result, people in Assam wake up earlier than people, say, in Rajasthan, Gujarat and elsewhere in India. By the time business hours start as per Indian Standard Time, people in Assam have already been up for many hours in the day. Studies show that a person is the most productive in the first six hours after waking up in the morning. So, a lot of productive time is wasted doing nothing because as per IST, business hours have not started.”

Back in 1974, as a teenage collegian, I spent a summer holiday at the tea estate of a classmate's father near Jorhat in Assam. One of the first things I discovered during that idyllic escape was that I had to re-set my watch to "tea time", an imaginary clock invented by the planters that was the time on my watch plus two hours.

Indian Standard Time, my friend's father explained, made no sense in a place where the sun would be rising by 4 am and setting by 3.30 pm if the planters used the same clock as the people in New Delhi.

I was sufficiently schooled in nationalist sentiment to be vaguely offended by this, seeing it as something of a betrayal of Indianness not to be on the same time zone as the rest of the nation. And yet, within a couple of days, I realised that it made eminent practical sense, if for no other reason than to avoid the confusion of getting up well after the crack of dawn and finding one's watch claimed it was the middle of the night.

Soon after, I went off to graduate studies in the United States, where one adjusted quickly enough to four time zones on the American mainland - and two more besides, to accommodate its far-flung states of Alaska and Hawaii.

The US, of course, also adopted Daylight Savings Time in the summer, whereby everyone set their clocks one hour ahead in the springtime to take advantage of the longer hours of sunlight in the summer season, setting them back again in the autumn (which Americans call Fall) - a practice we were taught to remember with the mnemonic "Spring forward, Fall back".

I wondered initially that an entire nation would be able to fiddle so comfortably with what I had grown up believing was the immutable sanctity of the national clock. But soon enough, changing one's watch every spring and fall season, and again almost every time one took a domestic flight, became routine enough for me.

Everywhere in the world, I discovered soon enough, the time is set to suit the convenience of human beings, not to obey some inflexible rule. Where the sun rises earlier and sets later in the summer months, changing the time permits one to take advantage of the longer hours of daylight - and it saves energy costs, since fewer lights would need to be switched on during normal working hours.

When I was working in Geneva for the United Nations, a national debate took place in Switzerland over that country's disconnection from the rest of Western Europe every summer, since Swiss farmers, a hugely powerful constituency in that milk and cheese producing nation, refused to change their clocks, saying it would confuse their cows to be milked an hour earlier five months of the year. Eventually businessmen and government officials frustrated by this managed to prevail over the stubborn dairy farmers, and the Swiss too have adopted the practice of Daylight Savings Time every summer. I suppose the farmers are now waking up earlier, or maybe, like the tea planters of Jorhat, they have adopted their own "cow time"!

The question is: why not India? We have one time zone from Jaisalmer to Jorhat and beyond, at UTC (the old GMT) plus five and a half hours, even though the nation embraces nearly 30 degrees of longitude (from 68° 7' to 97° 25' east) and the normal rule of thumb is one new time zone an hour apart per every 15 degrees of longitude. It makes no sense by any practical yardstick for people in Lakshadweep to wake up to a clock that shows the time in Lucknow, or indeed for those in Assam or the Andamans to keep their watch to the time of people in Agra. This actually has negative consequences in such diverse areas as lifestyle habits and energy conservation. It has even been suggested that one of the reasons that our north-east doesn't produce such good cricketers is that, for a day-long sport, they have so much less sunlit time for practice than their counterparts in Western India!

At one time, the idea of a single time-zone for all of India was adopted out of a desire to promote national unity at a time of perceived fissiparous tendencies. Our Independence was still new, and presumed to be fragile; every rule that promoted unity was embraced uncritically. Today our nationhood is secure; we don't need chronometrical uniformity to make us feel one. In fact the Indian Physical Laboratory in Delhi, the nation’s official timekeeper, has advocated multiple time zones for India. A sensible national system could give India three time zones: UTC plus 5 for places like Lakshadweep, Mumbai and Punjab; UTC plus 5 and a half, as at present, from Delhi to Chennai; and UTC plus 6 from Kolkata to the Burmese border, including the Andamans.

Think of the advantages: efficiency enhanced, electricity saved, bureaucratic rigidity reduced - and strapping young Arunachalese and Manipuris being able to train long enough to become better cricketers!

A clinching argument: the one country which irrationally defies the logic of time zones and insists on uniformity across its entire breadth is a Communist autocracy, China. Why should democratic India follow such a doctrinaire practice? It is, quite literally, time for a change.

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