Home / Opinion / Assam takes time into its own hands

The northeastern state of Assam (population 30 million) is associated in the Indian imagination mainly with lush tea gardens and a long-running insurgency that seeks to establish an independent Assamese state. But last week, Assam rebelled against an order perhaps even more tyrannous on an everyday level than the one embodied by distant New Delhi: It announced it would soon secede from Indian Standard Time (IST).

The state’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, said Assam would be moving forward one hour from the rest of India, from five hours, 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to six hours, 30 minutes ahead of GMT. This declaration was met with alarm by those Indians who have never travelled abroad, who bask in the stability and reliability of Indian Standard Time wherever they journey in the country (India doesn’t employ daylight saving time, either), and for whom the idea of changing a clock setting within an Indian territory is as absurd as that of changing one’s age. After all, shouldn’t time have certain standards, just like democracy or fresh produce? Not for them the strange and slippery American way of different times at the same time, a relativism entirely characteristic of a culture in which anything goes.

For such souls, as for fire-breathing nationalists, Gogoi’s plan is a political provocation even more subversive than the demand for secession, a suggestion of such eminent reasonableness it could only be a conspiracy. All around the country, Gogoi’s announcement sparked a set of fiery debates about nationalism, federalism, daylight, energy, geography, the tyranny of the (Indian) west over the east, and time in its real, psychological and metaphysical aspects.

But what it brought home to millions of Indians—in fact, the billion or so born after 1947, which was about the last year India had more than one time zone—was that good old Indian Standard Time, despite masquerading as a reality as ageless and venerable as Indian civilization, is itself a product of colonial and postcolonial political history, and is in fact a strangely youthful creature. IST is actually no older than a century or so, having existed alongside other Indian time zones until the decade after independence, when the new Indian republic achieved a gradual elimination of the competition: Calcutta Time (or eastern Indian time, abandoned in 1948) and the more informal Bombay Time (western time, abandoned 1955).

For decades, Indian Standard Time (IST) has been the reason—alongside certain fairly immovable human notions of what constitutes early and late, which is the rationale behind daylight saving time—much of eastern India spends a large part of the day literally in the dark, especially in winter, which greatly affects not just economic productivity but also quality of life. After all, a full 28 degrees of longitude separates the time-locked western and eastern extremities of India—about the longitudinal difference between Washington and Denver, which are currently two hours apart.

This means that when the sun rises at 5:30am in New Delhi, close to India’s longitudinal center, it has risen a full hour earlier in Guwahati, the bustling capital of Assam, and sets there by late afternoon, prematurely inviting the gloom (and the homeward-scurrying figures of people, women in particular) that is characteristic of the average badly lit, and badly behaved, Indian metropolis. The citizens of Guwahati spend an irrational number of daylight hours fast asleep and hours of darkness awake, which also has an economic cost, in terms of electricity expended. (This takes us right back to the origin of the idea of daylight saving time in the ever-enterprising, and thrifty, Benjamin Franklin’s 1784 paper “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light.")

So it’s no surprise that India’s east is relatively underdeveloped compared with the more prosperous west. IST makes India tilt west. All this did not stop Kapil Sibal, then minister for science and technology, from arguing in Parliament in 2004 that since the expanse of the Indian state is not large, no need has been felt for different time zones. Sibal has always been a resident of Delhi, where he also has a thriving legal practice.

A more realistic description of the problems engendered by a single time zone was provided by the Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua, who said, “As we have a single time zone, meal time and work and sleep hours are the same across the country. This causes a delay of two hours in the northeast compared to the western part of the country, and of an hour compared with northern and central India." In fact, Assam already has an informal tradition of a local time set ahead of IST called chaibagaan time, or tea-garden time, which is observed on the tea plantations and makes more efficient use of daylight hours. Gogoi’s suggestion would only bring the entire state (and perhaps, in time, the entire northeast) formally over to this practice.

A new time zone for the northeast seems an eminently rational idea, only requiring Indians from the rest of the country to make a slight mental switch when travelling east. But not to the Hindu newspaper, which in an editorial argued that the potentially adverse consequences of introducing a new time zone within the country are many and that the move would only intensify the sense of distance that northeastern India already has in relation to the rest of India. The editorial suggested a compromise, based on a recent paper by D.P. Sen Gupta and Dilip Ahuja, whereby all of India would move to a new Indian Standard Time six—and not five and a half—hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, thereby shifting the central Indian meridian about 7.5 degrees eastward.

I still think it makes sense to move to two or more time zones for the country instead of trying to please everybody and satisfying none. It would be the latest step in India’s long history of trying to work out how to keep the time and fix the clock to the day, a practice that has evolved in conjunction with changing human needs. Only a couple of centuries ago, the day in India and many other parts of the world was held to have begun at sunrise, not at midnight; even the idea of standard time first came about because of the advent of the railways.

But what the fuss also demonstrates is the extent to which the idea of time, like religion, is one of life’s foundational fictions, somehow so significant that a breach in standard time comes to seem like a breakdown of the idea of India itself, so rooted in human notions of early and late that the numbers attached to the hours determine the shape of the day. Why can’t the Assamese just rise at 4am in the summer and get about their days? Well, they just can’t. It would be too early.

If that same hour registered on the clock as 5am, though, that would be just fine.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel Arzee the Dwarf is published by New York Review Books.

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