Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 May 2019

The politics of time reveals deep fault lines in the harmony of society

Kapil Komireddi argues that outdated discussions on economic productivity and time are harming the potential of millions of Indians.
The decision to create new time zones often requires passionate debate about history and the needs of citizens. Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
The decision to create new time zones often requires passionate debate about history and the needs of citizens. Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Sunshine swamps India’s north-east while the rest of the country is sleeping. But the clocks, controlled by New Delhi, repudiate nature. The westernmost and easternmost parts of India are divided by 28 degrees of longitude.

As Indian schoolbooks make clear, 15 degrees of longitudinal distance correspond to an hour’s time difference. This means that the north-east is almost two hours ahead of western India.

Yet, strangely, Indians in the east are compelled to hold their lives in abeyance in deference to Indians in the west. Several hours of daylight have been lost by the time the north-east officially opens for business in summer, and it’s dark long before people have left work during winter.

It is hardly surprising that the north-east is mutinying against Indian Standard Time. Assam, the largest in terms of population of the seven contiguous northeastern states, has been the noisiest rebel.

In January 2014, it made a unilateral declaration that it was moving its clocks forward by an hour. Assam’s tea estates have a long tradition, dating back to the British Raj, of following “garden time”, which is one hour ahead of IST. Assam sought to turn this into the state’s official time.

Unfortunately for the 30 million people of the state, time happens to fall under the federal government’s, not the state’s, jurisdiction. The state government’s decree would only have made a difference if the government of India had approved a new time zone. It did not.

A few months later, India went to the polls, the Congress Party lost power in New Delhi, and the incoming Bharatiya Janata Party administration mothballed the matter.

But the demand for the grant of a new time zone for Assam – and, by implication, the rest of the north-east – is far from dead. Earlier this year, a petition was filed with Assam’s state high court urging it to direct the government of India to approve a separate time zone for the north-east. The government, in its response, admitted that the “eastern states in the country do face certain disadvantages” as a result of IST. Nonetheless, citing the recommendations of a special committee constituted in 2003 to study the feasibility of different time zones in India, it argued that a uniform standard across the country was preferable to multiple time zones.

The government contrived to offer a compromise by giving the governments and state bureaucracies of the north-east the option to advance their “work timings” by an hour. But what are “work timings”? Do they apply to schools, hospitals and public transport linking the region to the rest of India? And what about the private sector?

Asked to create a new official time zone for the north-east, the government of India offered the region the chance to create an new informal time zone for itself. All the burdens and disadvantages – from synchronising schedules with the rest of India to bringing multiple sectors into alignment – would have to be borne by the north-east.

The Indian government’s solution was no solution at all. Yet the high court, satisfied by the government’s response, dismissed the petition. Some in the north-east have turned to online petitioning in the hope of generating enough clamour to force the government to act, but the response so far has been lacklustre.

Why won’t India introduce a new time zone? Officially, administrative challenges are cited. But in reality there are powerful psychological reasons behind India’s reluctance to divide the country into different time zones. The north-east is a vast chunk of territory surrounded by China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land that runs through Bengal.

In official parlance, it is a “troubled” region. India inherited it from the British and the nature of early Indian nationalism – which didn’t in theory privilege any ethnic, religious or linguistic group – served as a justification for its incremental absorption into the union. But every state in the region has since then been exposed to violent insurgency and brutal counterinsurgency. Some insurgent groups, seeking full secession from India, are still active. Some are patronised by China and Pakistan.

The separatist movements are by no means popular. But their presence makes India jittery. Beijing, which already claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own, is repeatedly prodded by ultra-nationalists in China to annexe the entire region.

In such circumstances, the grant of a different time zone for the area, as the academic Lawrence Liang has observed, is viewed by New Delhi as “the first temporal step towards conceding spatial autonomy”.

In a clear manner India is effectively imitating China, which is longitudinally so riven that it spans five time zones but where people in far-flung regions have no choice but to rise, work and sleep in accordance with Beijing time.

Sadly, the very measure that India sees as imperative to deepening the north-east’s integration into the country prompts the north-east to recoil from it.

Nationalist mythology is another formidable source of the reverence accorded to IST. “We are a billion people scattered across a vast subcontinent”, an Indian businessman in California told me a decade ago, “but all of us keep the same time”. But IST has no civilisational pedigree. The imposition of a single time zone over India began only in late 19th century.

In 1881, or so the story goes, James Fergusson, the British governor of Mumbai, missed his train. The trains ran on Madras Time, which was around 40 minutes ahead of Bombay Time.

The missed train prompted a furious Fergusson to shift the then named Bombay to Madras Time, generating intense debate among locals.

Ultimately, however, Fergusson’s unilateralism accelerated the drive to bring all of India under a single time zone and, in 1906, the British introduced IST, which was to be 5.5 hours ahead of the Coordinated Universal Time.

Under British rule, IST was rarely observed in the east of the country, which followed Calcutta Time, or the west, which followed Bombay Time. But within a decade of India’s independence, IST became pre-eminent, rendering local time zones – and rhythms of life perfected over centuries – obsolete.

In her magisterial history of international standardisation of time, The Global Transformation of Time, Vanessa Ogle suggests that the British were not rigid in their application of IST because they thought of India as a “vast, decentralised territory rather than a single territorial space”.

Indian nationalists naturally saw the place differently. Their decision to enforce IST made sense in the immediate aftermath of partition and independence, when India’s future as a united entity was uncertain.

Today, however, to deny 40 million Indians in the north-east a separate time zone is to place the insecurities of India’s founders above the urgent needs of India’s citizens.

As anyone vaguely familiar with the north-east knows, the principal cause of unrest in the region is its economic backwardness. A new time zone will go a long way towards addressing this problem.

It will save daylight, boost productivity and conserve electricity. A prosperous north-east is less likely to yield to the temptations of separatism.

North-easterners have for too long felt neglected by the rest of India. India can start making up for this by adjusting its clocks to reflect a timeless fact: the sun rises in the east.

Kapil Komireddi is a frequent contributor to The National

Updated: May 18, 2017 04:00 AM