Separate Time Zones Across India Will Increase our Productivity
It’s time that we do way with a uniform time zone for the entire country. 
It’s time that we do way with a uniform time zone for the entire country. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Separate Time Zones Across India Will Increase our Productivity

(This story was first published on 1 september 2015. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to acknowledge the introduction of the Indian Standard Time (IST) on September 1 1947.)

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Need For Different Time Zones

  • Indian Standard Time (IST), introduced on September 1 1947 is impractical
  • Successive governments have failed to introduce reforms
  • Having different time zones is not a matter of semantics or politics, but a matter of hard-headed economic logic
  • Varying time zones will increase productivity and boost growth

“I know what time is,” said St Augustine, the 5th century Christian philosopher, “but if someone asks me, I cannot tell him.” Indeed, Augustine’s problem has vexed philosophers, mathematicians and scientists for ages.

Never mind – for most people, time is its measurement, and how we order our lives around it. Kids go to school at appointed hours, their parents clock in for work, the margin between gold and silver in track and field events often hinges on hundredths of a second.

Modern nations work like clockwork. Clocks have to be set according to some locally acceptable standards of time, otherwise factories would grind to a halt, and train and aircraft timings go haywire. But is it necessary for any nation to have one, unique, standard of time?

Impractical Time Zone

Soon after Independence, on September 1 1947, our founding fathers believed that a uniform time zone for a country made sense. That day, the Indian Standard Time (IST) came into existence, following a vertical line that runs 82.5° E, in Shankargarh, Mirzapur, near Allahabad. This was deemed to be the central north-south axis of this sprawling nation.

This was impractical, but successive governments have mulishly resisted any attempt at reform. The British were more practical – they followed at least three time zones, to maximise daylight working hours, conserve energy and follow the sun as it traversed India from its extreme east to its western coast.

Till 1948, eastern India followed what was called Calcutta Time; till 1955, western India followed Bombay Time. In our far Northeast, where the British ran their enormously profitable tea gardens (or bagans), Assam followed Bagan Time. This is one hour ahead of the IST, and almost two hours ahead of clocks on the western coast.

(Photo: iStockphoto)

Whither Economic Logic?

The United States extends roughly 4,800km from east to west. It follows (hold your breath) nine different time zones. Of these, the Eastern, Central and Western time zones are well-known. Less known are the zones based in Alaska, Samoa and others.

India, stretching nearly 3,000km from east to west, should ideally have two, or three time zones. This is not a matter of semantics or politics, but follows from hard-headed economic logic.

In his 1983 classic Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, the late Harvard economic historian David Landes showed how the notion of time influenced human progress. In ancient agrarian societies, people woke at sunrise, toiled through the day and went to sleep at sunset – cycles of time were measured by seasons, rather than hours or minutes.

But when Europe set sail during the 16th century, measurement of time became immensely important. Imagine a ship, a dot in a vast ocean, trying to plot a route to its destination.

(Photo: iStockphoto)
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Profiteering with Bagan Time

The measurement of latitude (its north-south coordinates) on a maritime map was relatively easy, plotting the positions of stars. Longitude (or east-west coordinates) proved much tougher. It needed a clock, accurate to the second, on voyages that could last nearly a year. Without that, ships would drift away from their courses, leading to disaster, loss of cargo and life.

All maritime nations competed to engineer such a device. The winner, in the 1770s, was an English clockmaker called John Harrison. His chronometers largely led to the British domination of oceanic trade.

Less than a century later, British planters in Assam realised that work (and profits) would be maximised if labourers started work soon after sunrise and finished shortly before dusk. During summer in the Northeast, sunrise is around 4 AM. By 5:30 AM, sirens summon labourers to work and plucking and processing begin in earnest. Work is over by 5 PM or so, when daylight starts fading out.

Production, finance and trade are interlinked: during colonial times, labourers from Santhal areas, managers and book keepers from Bengal, merchants and traders from Rajasthan and Punjab, and Scottish planters all followed Bagan Time. For over a century, tea from Assam and textiles from Bengal (which followed Calcutta Time) were the Empire’s largest exports to Britain.

After the imposition of the IST, this network was broken. Though the gardens of Assam follow Bagan Time, much of the rest of the economy of the Northeast is forced to follow IST.

Absurdity of Indian Standard Time

During a recent visit to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, I witnessed the utter absurdity of following IST in the Northeast. People are up and about after a brunch around 6 AM.

But state and central government offices and courts do not open before 10 AM, and shut by 4 or 5 PM. Effectively, four precious daytime hours are wasted.

It’s worse for business and commerce, which depend on banks and financial institutions. The latter follow IST, opening around 10.30 AM, closing early. So, a truck seller or dealer of mobile phones, who needs to clear cheques or get credit, wastes more than three and a half hours, if he opens shop by 7 AM, when Aizawl is bustling.

Loss of Precious Time

So we lose precious daylight hours by sticking to IST. As late as 2014, a proposal to divide India into multiple time zones, brought by then Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, was shot down in Parliament. This mulishness is difficult to comprehend, given the obvious benefits of having multiple time zones.

Say, we divide India up into Eastern, Central and Western time zones, with the east starting work – including sarkari and banking operations – earliest and the west a few hours later. This will increase productivity and could boost growth by a few percentage points.

To rephrase Augustine, “We know what IST is, but if anyone asks, we can’t explain why it exists.”

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist.)

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