A Time Zone for India's North-East

It is good to hear that the demand for a separate time zone for the North Eastern states of India has been revived. The proposal, it seems, is with the government and is in active consideration.  It had to be so, as no less a person than Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of the state of Assam, the biggest north-eastern state, has taken up the matter. In any case, regardless of what happens to the proposal, the Chief Minister is reportedly set on introducing the “Garden Time” in Assam soon. Introduced by the British tea planters over a century and a half ago for the tea garden workers it would be an hour ahead of the Indian Standard Time (IST).

One wonders as to why the Centre has been wary of creating another time zone for the north-easterners. It seems, those who have never lived and worked in the region can hardly ever comprehend the difficulties of the people at large and of others, like administrators or heads of offices and organizations, who have to ensure completion of assignments within the given time frame. The short duration of the “working day” in the North East imposes sometimes insurmountable constraints on those who have to oversee completion of the jobs that they happen to have at hand.

Setting up a separate time zone for the north-eastern states is an old issue. I recall while working at Shillong in the state of Meghalaya a quarter century ago the matter was raised in the North-Eastern Council (NEC) meeting held in late 1980s. The NEC, created decades ago, had been instrumental in pushing the developmental initiatives emanating from the seven states of the region known as the “Seven sisters”. Most of the officials attending the meeting felt that the role of the NEC would become more effective if the most productive hours during the day were not allowed to be lost because of the straitjacket of the IST. The then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Saeed happened to be present to whom a memorandum was presented. Since his government soon met its end, apparently that saw the end of the memorandum, too.

It is indeed a peculiar situation out there. Bangladesh, which is just south of Meghalaya, is half an hour ahead of it and the same is strangely true of Manipur and Tripura that are located east of it. The sun rises earlier in eastern-most parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur  and Tripura than in Bangladesh and yet they, curiously,  are all behind it by half an hour. Consequently, when the official day commences, based on IST determined by time around a thousand kilomteres away in the West somewhere near Allahabad in UP, the sun is way up in the sky and workers have already  spent four to five waking hours waiting for the regular working hours to commence. They thus lose those crucial morning hours when the mind and the body are fresh to contend with the day’s physical or mental challenges.

Currently, there is a kind of a double whammy. While the daily routine starts close to midday, workers generally make efforts to wind up early as darkness falls early. None in the North-East would like to stay out when it is dark, more so the women who work in large numbers in offices. Not only they may be living far, they may also have to wrestle to get a public transport (if available) to get back home. After all, it is not the safest place after dark. I had had occasion to notice that in winters women start making preparations for leaving office by 3.30 in the afternoon as, if it is cloudy, it could be pretty dark by 4.30 or 4.45 PM. On many an occasion I came back in gathering darkness from my Shillong office after 5.00 PM and watched live telecast of the dying moments of a cricket test match being played in Bombay.

The unease of north-easterners on this score seems to have been simmering all these years and off and on concerted demands for a separate time zone have been raised. They have the feeling that in such a vast country a single time zone cannot work. The country sprawls for around 3000 kilometres from west to east embracing 28 longitudes with at least a difference of almost two hours between east and west. People from many walks of life — academics, intellectuals, lawyers, teachers, youth, student and women organisations — in the northeast have been demanding creation of a separate time zone for the seven northeast States as, they feel, it was necessary to correct the anomalies forced on the people and economy of the region.

Jahnu Barua, an eminent Assamese film maker, has been very vocal in this regard and spearheaded the demand for a separate time zone. According to him, suffering enormous losses during the last six decades, the north-east is up against “unproductive tendencies, more alienation, imbalance in biological clock, degeneration of society, wastage of electricity, loss in productivity and so on…Having to follow the IST, the people of northeast are subjected to do all their day to day activities at wrong time. Waking up minimum two hours after sunrise, breakfast after minimum four hours of daylight, start of office hours only at middle of the day, lunch at three to four hours after midday, dinner after five to six hours of darkness and finally going to bed much after midnight.” He further showed that total wastage of electricity at homes and offices of the region since independence due to following of single time zone was to the tune of Rs.94,900 crore.

Earlier this month the members of Parliament from the North-Eastern states sunk their political difference over this issue. The MPs from across various shades of political opinion in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have joined together to demand a separate time zone for the region.

There are, however, detractors who think a separate time zone would spell disaster for the country. It would promote fissiparous tendencies among the regions. Given the Assam example, every state would indulge in one-upmanship and demand separate time zone. Besides, it has also been contended that it would promote incompetence and delays in decision making. The arguments seem to be fallacious, even specious. Two researchers in the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, are also against a separate time zone for North-East but have failed to give any convincing grounds. They surprisingly feel that a separate time zone may alienate the easterners from the rest of the country. Besides, they think that it would be difficult to implement and create complications in railways and air time tables and a slip in setting a watch on the borders could lead to catastrophic accidents. Above all, they think it would not lead to significant saving of electricity and, hence, they propose advancement of IST by half an hour which would meet many of the problems in the North-East – forgetting that even then most of the  North-East would continue to lose an hour or so of daylight. The fears seem to be all imaginary and at the same time the gains in savings and productivity have been overlooked.

The US and Russia have multiple time zones – US has five if not more and Russia as many as nine – and so did China have five before the Revolution. It was the communist government which brought the entire country within one time zone.  And yet, against the contention of supporters in India of one time zone, China, effectively, has two time zones – Beijing Time and two hours behind it is Urumqui time used locally in Sinkiang Province

A separate time zone for the North-East has been necessary for years. Hopefully, as the fresh proposal has had a powerful push from Assam before the general elections it would now be accepted.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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