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Time is relative. For reasons of practicality, the longitude passing through Greenwich in Britain is taken as the point from which time is measured and calculated. This is known as Greenwich Mean Time — an arbitrary starting point that the world has accepted. Following this, it was decided immediately after India attained independence that the time near Allahabad — five and a half hours ahead of GMT — would be considered Indian Standard Time and thus would be the time across the Indian republic. This arrangement was considered convenient at the time even though it completely disregarded the geographical expanse of the country. The fact of the matter is that in the northeastern states of India, the sun rises a good two hours before it does in the country’s western fringes, like the Rann of Kutch. It has been argued for a long time that one time zone for India does not make sense and makes for a waste of energy by restricting sunlight, especially in the northeastern states. It was a matter of time before the dominance of IST was challenged and now Assam has done so by deciding that the clocks in the tea gardens of the state would be advanced by an hour. This will enable Assam to save energy as the working hours would be advanced by an hour.

In terms of history, this is not something novel. Under British rule, India did have two time zones — one for eastern India, known as Calcutta or Bengal time, and the other for western India based in Bombay. What is equally important is that many tea gardens in Assam had used what was locally called garden time, which was one hour ahead of IST. The tea gardens adopted this to take advantage of daylight. Tea gardens started their day early. The Assam government is now adopting this system again for its tea gardens. It is a welcome move that should set an example for other states to adjust their clocks. There can be no doubt that following IST in the eastern and northeastern states results in the loss of daylight and, therefore, a fall in productivity and a waste of energy. States like West Bengal, where the administration is laying an emphasis on increasing productivity, could take a leaf out of the Assam administration’s book.

There is a political subtext to this matter pertaining to time and clocks. In India, everything is centralized. This includes as abstract a thing as time. New Delhi dictates that all regions of India, irrespective of their geographical location, should follow one time zone. It is assumed that allowing different time zones would somehow threaten the unity of the republic. This attitude defies what is the reality. Both the geographical and the cultural spaces of India are varied and this diversity cannot be subsumed under an imposed rubric called ‘Indian culture’ or ‘Indian time’. In politics, a process of federalization is noticeable. This will have its impact on non-political spheres. The idea of one Indian time needs to be challenged.