Your time, my time

For years, they have been waking up early and starting late. But India's northeast, which sees sunrise almost two hours before Mumbai, has decided it's time to set the clock right. The region's demand for a separate time zone has never been more vociferous

April is usually the cruelest month for India's northeastern states. Cyclonic storms lash the region with vengeance and rip apart homes and hopes. But in all this, the stoic people find things that keep them together and going, their famous fortitude in place.

This April, it is the loud revival of an issue that has always united the Seven Sisters. Amid the deafening thunder and incessant, deluging rains, people here are whipping up a different storm as they try to turn into a mass movement the debate for a separate time zone, something that was kicked off in the beginning of the millennium by a few scientists, academicians and media persons.

And from all accounts — with film personalities, students, engineers, even housewives and common folks joining in — the storm is gathering force and the movement gaining heavy momentum. "We are trying our best to make ourselves heard," says Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya, president, Northeast Students' Organisation (NESO). "We hope our voices will reach the deaf ears of the mainland people."

Chipping in, Bakul Saikia, a student of the prestigious Cotton College in Guwahati, says, "The Central government has to understand the need for more than one time zone in India. Separate time zones don't divide the country or its people."

He has a point. If the sun rises in Kohima at 4 am, it rises in Mumbai two hours later. "But this two-hour time gap is completely overlooked," says R K Barman of the Assam Science Technology and Environment Council (ASTEC). "Office starts in the northeast six hours after daybreak as against four in the rest of India. Working and sleeping hours get postponed. The real clock differs from the official clock. Daylight hours are wasted, leading to higher power consumption."

The British knew better, though. The colonial rulers had set local time one hour ahead of IST for tea gardens, coal mines and the oil industry of Assam. Some of the tea gardens still follow the bagaan (garden) time.

People from the northeast have been demanding creation of a separate time zone for the seven states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura so that there is optimum utilisation of daylight. This, in turn, would result in conservation of energy. As the sun rises much earlier in this region than in the rest of the country, votaries here say it is only fair that they ask for the clock to be advanced by at least one-and-ahalf hours.

Internationally acclaimed filmmaker and former ISRO scientist Jahnu Barua says, "We are disadvantaged as far as the availability and usability of daylight and dark hours are concerned. We have gone behind by more than a decade in productivity since independence. Moreover, the total wastage of electricity at homes and offices of the region since Independence due to this is to the tune of Rs 94,900 crore."

Barua is not alone in his anxiety. It seems the entire region has woken up to the time zone call, organising a whirlwind of seminars, meetings and public addresses to drum up support for it.

In one such seminar recently in Aizawl, Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla said the region suffers economically from sharing IST with the rest of the country. He added that the appeal should not be interpreted as a separatist move. "If India considers the northeast people as Indians, it must set an eastern time for the region."

Assam, too, is serious about this. Its state science and technology ministry has vowed the state will take up the issue with the Central government. The Centre, in turn, has set up a committee chaired by Ajay Mathur, the director-general of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE), to examine the implications of another time zone in India. "The panel will primarily report on energy savings for which various options are being considered. Another time zone for the country is one of them. The report is expected to come out by January 2011," he says.

But it's not a conundrum easily solved. "There are complications and confusions involved in the process," says panel member A K Bhatnagar, who's also additional director general, India Meteorological Department. "We also have to consider the costs of implementation, changing of records and various other factors."

Ever since Independence, India has set its standard time based on its mean longitude of 82.5°E, which is five-and-a-half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (abbreviated as UTC and sometimes written as Universal Time Coordinated, formerly and still widely called GMT). The IST longitude divides India into two parts, the eastern (comprising the seven states of the northeast, Sikkim, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand ) and the western part (rest of the country).

Politically, too, it is a hot potato. All said and done, a separate time zone may carry with it implications of a separate identity. With various separatist movements going on in the northeast for decades, some believe that if the region succeeds in getting a separate time zone, many could take it as a victory for their secessionist movements. Besides, a different time zone may further alienate an already alienated people from the rest of the country.

The National Physical Laboratory of India (NPL) also has reservations. P Banerjee, a senior scientist with NPL, rejected the feasibility of advancing the clock. "Instead of a separate time zone, we can advance office timings that are convenient to the (seven) states," he says. "The introduction of a Daylight Saving Time (DST) scheme for the country would solve the entire problem. Also, a separate time zone cannot be introduced arbitrarily against international conventions. Plus, there are logistical problems like keeping pace with national railway and airlines timings with two time zones."

Not that there has been no thought on the subject. In 2001, the Central government, following a PIL on the matter, set up a committee to examine the issue. While maintaining there was no need for a different time zone for the northeast, it recommended advancing office timings by a couple of hours.

In 2007, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy reopened debate on the need for more than one time zone in India when it mentioned the proposal in the context of saving power consumption in northeastern states. The government, those in the know say, has not shut off the issue from its mind.

The demand got a fresh impetus in the northeast when Bangladesh advanced its time by one hour in 2009, making it one-and-a-half-hours ahead of IST. The people of the region were shocked to realise that even as officegoers in the northeast reach the workplace at 10 am IST, their counterparts in Bangladesh have already completed 90 minutes of work. And Bangladesh is behind the northeast in getting daylight.

Back in 1784, when Benjamin Franklin, during his time as an American envoy to France, asked Parisians to economise on candles by waking up early to make optimum use of sunlight, it went on to become an axiom of practical wisdom and a lifestyle choice for many. More than 225 years later, the entire northeast of India is crying hoarse to make the Central government understand the meaning of Franklin's proverbial advice."

With the clamour growing, the region may just catch up on lost time.


Have you ever wondered why different cities have different sunrise and sunset times? Well, because apart from revolving around the sun, the earth is also rotating on its axis, and a place located in the east will see the sun earlier than one in the west. Earlier, time standards were local and most cities had a central clock tower which was set to noon when the sun appeared directly overhead and the shadow was the shortest. With the development of trade, the importance of standardisation of time was realised.

British railways took the first step and started using the local mean time of Greenwich as the standard time. Soon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) became a universal standard. The earth is divided into 360 longitudes — imaginary lines running from north to south. The longitudes are distributed 180 eastward and 180 westward of Greenwich. As the earth roughly completes one rotation in 24 hours, the sun will be over each of the longitudes by turn every four minutes. In simple terms, when it is 12:00 noon at Greenwich, it will be 12:04 GMT at the 1°E longitude, because the sun has passed this longitude four minutes before Greenwich. Similarly, for a place 15°E of Greenwich, the local time will be GMT+one hour (15x4=60 minutes) and so on.

In common practice, standard time zones are defined at longitudes that are multiples of 15. As a result, the typical difference between two time zones is an hour. However, across the world, the adoption of time zones depends on various factors because standardising time, in effect, means people have to change their basic habits, which are normally in sync with the local time. Most nations maintain a balance between the economic and social implications of time standardisation as a country with a large east-west expanse will have remarkable differences in local times. For instance, India's longitudinal expanse results in a difference of 29.3° — almost two hours. To deal with this, countries like Russia, Canada and the US have multiple time zones.

Source: Times of India