One India, two time zones

In a two paragraph order delivered by Chief Justice Ajit Singh, the Gauhati High Court has dismissed a public interest litigation filed by Rita Mozumder seeking a direction from the Central government to notify a separate time zone for the Northeast. The court cites a high-level committee study, constituted by the Ministry of Science and Technology, that recognised the difficulties faced by a single time zone in eastern India but concluded that Indian Standard Time (IST) should nonetheless be retained. The issues raised by the petition demanded more than a cursory order dismissing the petition given the importance of the issue. Legislators, activists, industrialists and ordinary citizens from the Northeast have often complained about the effect of IST on their lives, and pursued the issue of having a separate time zone with the Central government, without much success. The petition arose after repeated rejections by the government.

The idea of a standard time zone has become so integral to our lives that we often take it for granted and assume it to be a part of natural phenomena. We tend to forget the complex contestations — including legal ones — that go into its making. The creation of a time zone signals the victory of time over space with geographical areas being brought under a single time zone rather than relying on local solar time. It entails a denial of local time — or a separation of time from space — a very significant fact if you consider what it means to the experience of social and economic lives. In the case of India, the time difference between the westernmost part of India and the easternmost point is approximately two hours, the effect of which is that the sun rises and sets much earlier than it does in the rest of the country. The journalist, writer and academic Sanjoy Hazarika describes the Northeast as being stuck in “trapped in a time zone that makes neither common sense nor social and economic sense”.

There is a strong case

In the Northeast, the sun rises as early as four in the morning and in winter it sets by four in the evening. By the time government offices or educational institutions open, many daylight hours are already lost. In winter this problem gets even more accentuated and the ecological costs are a disaster with much more electricity having to be consumed. Profs. D.P. Sengupta, and Dilip Ahuja of the National Institute of Advanced Studies claim that advancing IST by half an hour would result in saving 2.7 billion units of electricity every year. None of the other proposals such as the introduction of daylight saving time in India has met with any approval and it is felt that having two time zones would be unsuitable. There is of course a strong political dimension to granting a separate time zone in the Northeast given the region’s long history of self-determination movements. The unstated assumption is that the grant of a different time zone is only the first temporal step towards conceding spatial autonomy. This appears to me to be a short-sighted perspective. If socioeconomic development is indeed one of the formulae to combat insurgency, might it not be worthwhile to consider the disastrous impact that IST has on productivity and efficiency in the region?

A few years ago, then Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, frustrated with the decision of the Centre not to have a separate Northeast time, unilaterally decided that Assam would follow ChaiBagaan time. Bagaan time or tea time is a reference to an informal practice followed in tea gardens in Assam which is an hour ahead of IST. It alerts us to the fact that there is indeed a long history of the application of different time zones in India. We find evidence of this in the Constituent Assembly debates. On December 28, 1948, responding to an amendment proposed by Naziruddin Ahmad, Dr. Ambedkar asked him what system of timing he had in mind: “Is it the Greenwich time, the Standard time, Bombay time or Calcutta time?”

Ambedkar’s reference to “Bombay time” and “Calcutta time” reminds us of an interesting aberration in the history of IST. It was instituted in 1905 but after it had been adopted, Bombay traders found it difficult to convert to IST. Because the conversion to IST was sought to be effected at a time when there was considerable public resentment over the Tilak sedition trial, the government found little support for this shift among the people in Bombay. Bombay Time was maintained right up to 1955 with Bombay following its own time zone which was 38 minutes ahead of the rest of the country.

Our use of time

While the court may have been reticent to intervene in what it saw primarily as an executive prerogative, it also passed an opportunity to examine a fascinating dimension of temporal justice that Indian courts have not had an opportunity to address, but other jurisdictions have had to contend with. In the U.S., battles over daylight-saving time regularly went to court and it was not until 1966 with the passing of the Uniform Time Act that they had a uniform national period of daylight-saving time. Todd D. Rakoff in his work on the invisibility of time in structuring the law argues that there is a normative dimension of time that seems to underwrite a number of legal arrangements, and the question of how we, as a society, structure our time is mirrored in the question how we structure our laws. He terms this the ‘laws of time’ and includes within this ambit a range of regulatory norms from the standardization of time to the length of work day and the creation of holidays and social time. But as with any other normative systems, the ‘chrononormative’ (in Elizabeth Freeman’s memorable characterisation) functions by invisibilising its own structures of power and control.

Responding to the various objections raised about a separate time zone, journalist, writer and academic Sanjoy Hazarika raises critical questions and asks us to consider why it is that the development index leans considerably in favour of western India as opposed to the east, and what impact differential time may have on it. This I believe is a question that has a significant impact on the interpretation of ‘life’ in Article 21 of the Constitution. Even if the Gauhati High Court were unwilling to issue a substantive order, it certainly had the discretion to ask for a study on the legal impact of a single time zone on the fundamental rights of people. This is perhaps a question that the Law Commission may find worthy of investigating further. In the meantime, we will have to be content with the tweaking of local orders changing office timings etc. And, most of east India will continue to feel the vagaries of IST an inconvenience while the further you go to the Northeast, it will be experienced as the caprice of the state.


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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 6:15:52 am |