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How should India track its time; Office hours in Northeast need to be changed

Bibek Debroy
clock, indian standart time, ist, nort east, north east india, meghalaya

By heading towards the east, Phileas Fogg had gone towards the sun and, consequently, his days were four minutes shorter for each degree of longitude covered in this direction . That name is a giveaway. This is a quote from Around the World in Eighty Days, the William Butcher translation. India is a large country. The distance between the eastern and western borders traverses 29 degrees of longitude. In practice, this leads to a difference of two hours between the east and the west in the rising and setting of the sun. I was born in Shillong and spent the early years of my life there. We used to be up and about by 5:00 AM. By 8:00 PM, we were fast asleep.

Recently, I revisited Shillong. Having lived in Delhi for several years, I have gotten used to waking up a bit later and sleeping a bit later. In Shillong, the sun and the birds woke me up at 5:00 AM and, for the duration of my stay, I went to sleep at 8:00 PM. The issue of multiple timezones for a country like India keeps resurfacing. It has resurfaced again with a paper published in Current Science in October 2018 by scientists from CSIR-National Physical Laboratory. The paper is titled, Necessity of two time zones: IST-I (UTC + 5:30 h) and IST-II (UTC + 6:30 h) in India and its implementation, and focuses more on the implementation part. UCT stands for universal coordinated time, earlier known as GMT and still popularly known as that.

Let me quote from the paper. The people, legislators and industrialists from the northeastern part of the country have been demanding a separate time zone for a long time as they genuinely face problems with the existing Indian Standard Time (IST). The existing IST is said to be badly affecting their lives as the sun rises and sets much earlier than the official working hours. An early sunrise leads to loss of many daylight hours by the time offices or educational institutions open. In winter, this problem gets even more severe as the Sun sets much early and, therefore, more consumption of electricity is required to keep life active. Very recently, the Gauhati High Court also dismissed a public interest litigation seeking a separate time zone for northeast… In this article, we relook into the possibility of introducing two time zones in India which is feasible and implementable. The proposed recommendations of two time zones are based on: (i) importance of sunrise and sunset timings on the biological activities of living beings; (ii) simple analyses of synchronising the sunrise and sunset timings across the country to the usual office hours of 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM (iii) minimisation of the spatial extension at the proposed border of time demarcation so as to avoid any kind of railway accidents; (iv) if the proposed timezones would be beneficial for electricity saving, and (v) the technical implementation mechanisms of the proposed two new timezones in the country . The paper s conclusion is that the same can be done. The present IST (IST-I) is fine for the rest of India. But there should be IST-II for Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

As I said, this is not a new issue. It has simply resurfaced. Before everything got standardised, there were two types of confusion. Firstly, there wasn t a single official time. There was Bombay Time (UTC + 4.51 h) and there was Calcutta Time (UTC + 5.30 h). Indeed, many towns/cities had their own individual times, not just Bombay or Calcutta. IST wasn t standardised until 1905/06. Even then, the Calcutta Time officially lasted till 1948 and Bombay Time lasted quasi-officially till 1955. Secondly, since railways were constructed by private companies, they had their own timetables that were not invariably synchronised with official teams.

Right till the first decade of the 20th century, timetables like Bradshaw often had two sets of times for trains, local and standardised. This history probably explains why the paper discusses implementation issues in railways. However, because the issue isn t new, it has been explored in the past and there must be compelling arguments for a retreat from standardisation. A paper citing the energy efficiency argument (with multiple timezones) surfaced in the 1980s. In 2001, a Department of Science and Technology committee examined the issue. After this, in 2004, the then minister of science and technology told the Rajya Sabha that, since the expanse of the Indian state is not large, no need has been felt for different time zones . That, of course, is not an argument against a relook.

However, there is the principle of Ockham s Razor, though that is more about postulates/theories pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Taking a few liberties with the translation, it reads why complicate and multiply unless it is necessary ? Yes, the sun does rise and set at different times.

But what is sacrosanct about the office timing of 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM? Without disrupting IST, surely it is possible to have working hours and office hours in the northeast from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM? Tea gardens still follow that practice. That is akin to daylight saving time for the northeast, a simpler course of action. Why not that? Indeed, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha, in December, after the paper in Current Science was published, the current minister of science and technology endorsed what the then minister had said in 2004 there is no case for multiple timezones.