We all know that time, around the world, used to be calculated based on the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, known as Greenwich Mean Time. Now it has been superseded by Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Based on that, Europe operates on 4 main time zones, while the USA alone has 9 time zones. But strangely, India with 2,000 kms wide mainland, stretching from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, has only one time zone. It has a -30° longitudinal width. So, if the sun rises in Arunachal Pradesh at 5 AM, it will take another hour and half, to rise in Gujarat. Does it make a difference to the different regions of India? Let’s find out.
Last year, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu reopened the debate on the long-standing demand for a separate time zone in the Northeast. The demand, first raised by the north-eastern States in the mid-nineties, is based on the logic that owing to early sunset in the Northeast, lights have to be turned on in offices in the evening, leading to excessive consumption of power. This can be avoided by advancing the clock by one or one-and-half hours so that those offices can close earlier. His logic was that people in the region get up as early as 4 am. Several daylight hours are wasted as government offices open only at 10am and close at 4 pm.
A Historical Reminder:
The Indian Standard Time (IST) is 5 hours and 30 minutes ahead of GMT. It has not always been the same. India’s Time Zones were first established in 1884. Originally there were two time zones, Bombay Time and Calcutta Time. In the very early days of railways in India, local time was observed at each large city, in common with practice in most other countries at the time. Because of their importance as commercial and economic centres, Bombay Time and Calcutta Time assumed special importance. It was followed for many official purposes in the late 19th century (Bombay Time from 1884), effectively forming two time zones for British India. Calcutta time was 5 hours, 30 minutes, and 21 seconds in advance of GMT, while Bombay Time was 4 hours and 51 minutes ahead of GMT. Many railway companies, however, standardized on using Madras time as being in between Bombay and Calcutta times, and often this, rather than Bombay time, was used in Indian timetables from the late 1880s onward. Bombay continued to have a different time (39 minutes behind IST) until 1955. IST, which is GMT plus 5.30 hrs, came into existence in 1905.
In certain time-zone maps, IST is also designated E*. With India’s western and eastern borders some 2,000 km) apart, India could well have three time zones! Like China, another huge country, India has chosen however to have a single time zone across the whole country. No Daylight Saving Time rules are applied either.
One time zone or two? This has been the constant dilemma for all the governments ruling India. India’s time meridian passes through Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, roughly halfway between the country’s westernmost and eastern-most points. The time difference between these two points is just short of two hours so the sun rises and sets much earlier on the eastern side than it does on the western side. Due to this, States in the East encounter a number of social and economic problems.
During the winter months for example, the sun sets in the Northeast as early as 4 pm. This early onset of darkness brings with it a number of problems, including impacts on productivity and increased electricity usage, driving costs for locals. It is often cited that a different time zone for the Northeast could save millions of units of electricity and alleviate the problems in the states. A study conducted by Professors D.P. Sengupta, and Dilip Ahuja of the National Institute of Advanced Studies supports this as it claims that advancing IST by just a half hour would result in saving 2.7 billion units of electricity every year.
In 2006, India’s federal planning commission recommended the division of the country into two time zones. However, no action was taken. Then, in January 2014, the then Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, independently decided that Assam would follow Chai Bagaan time, or tea garden time, and ordered the State to set its clocks an hour ahead of the rest of the country. This, however, had no lasting results.
Let’s ponder upon the advantages and disadvantages of a single time zone in a country like India.
The advantage of having a single time zone is that you need not constantly adjust your watch or mobile time while travelling across the width of the country. Everything is easy to compute. If your flight from Ahmedabad to Guwahati takes 2 hours and you leave at 12 noon, you will arrive at 2 pm. If you had multiple time zones, you would have arrived at 4. This also ensures that the whole country is functioning at the same time. If you have teams in Kolkata and Mumbai, and they are in office at 9, all of them will be present at the same time.
The major disadvantage is less daylight time for Western folks. In Guwahati, the sun rises at 5. People have 4 hours of sunlight before office. In Mumbai, it does at 7. They get only 2 hours of sunlight (people usually leave by 7 pm in the evening, by when the sun has set).
India’s central government is keen to retain one time zone for safety issues and to prevent confusion, specifically in regards to railway operations and flights. Furthermore, there are concerns that introducing a new time zone to the Northeast will force political and social divisions between the Northeast and the rest of the country.
In a country where many people are still without electricity however, even just two extra hours of daylight could mean all the difference. According to a study, it could save up to 2.7 billion units of electricity every year. But on the other hand, it will be a herculean task to introduce different time zones in India. With the citizens still struggling to understand alien concepts like ‘Demonetization’ and ‘GST’, it would not be wise to try to introduce a new time zone in the country. Institutions like railways too, will have a hard time, in adapting the changes. But we need to save electricity too, don’t we? It has become a necessary evil for our country. Sooner or later, it has to be done. The only question is ‘When would be the best time to go for it?’