Plan for a New Indian Time Zone Shows How Strange Time Zones Are

A new push for a second Indian time zone illustrates the strange political nature of how the world counts its time

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Utpal Baruah / Reuters

A worker plucks tea leaves at the Amchong tea estate in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on July 11, 2012

At 4:30 a.m. in the middle of summer, the Indian coastal metropolis of Mumbai is still blanketed in darkness. Hundreds of miles to the east, at that exact same moment, the sun is up above the terraced slopes of Assam, a northeastern Indian state. The time on the clock there? 4:30 a.m. also.

That’s set to change. Following a new edict by Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the state plans to shift its clock one hour ahead of the rest of India, officially embracing the “garden time” that has been used on Assam’s famed tea estates for decades. The adjustment, insists Gogoi, will boost his state’s productivity, granting its workforce more time in the daylight hours. “People will become more energetic and we will save on energy consumption,” he told reporters last week.

It’s unclear at present whether other states in India’s far-flung Northeast will follow suit, as well as if the move will gain official sanction from New Delhi. Already, there are fears that an abrupt changing of timetables will lead to disruptions in the country’s plane and railway services. Despite India’s continental vastness — its easternmost point is roughly on the same longitude as the Burmese capital — the country has clung to one time zone. It’s not alone in such a conspicuous arrangement: China, which rivals the U.S. in landmass, operates entirely on Beijing time. The ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, in China’s far west, is two and a half hours ahead of India on the clock despite lying farther west on the map than much of the subcontinent, including, indeed, Assam.

(MORE: India’s Northeast: How a Troubled Region May Be a Global Flash Point)

Countries like India and China, emerging out of empire and war in the mid-20th century, reckoned a single time zone would serve as a unifying force. Time may be a metaphysical concept, but it has real political effects. The historian Benedict Anderson, one of the leading theorists of modern nationalism, has suggested that the European nation-state emerged on the back of two popular inventions: the print newspaper and the clock. Nothing quite binds people together more than the certainty that there are others around them, living in the same moment, thinking the same thoughts.

Before the past century, though, time was literally all over the place. Individual localities made their own calculations on the position of the sun. Well into the 1800s, the time in New York City’s borough of Brooklyn could be half an hour ahead of that across the East River in Manhattan. The imperatives of railway networks and global shipping routes gradually spurred the need for a more standardized, universal system. At the International Meridian Conference in 1884, the world’s time standard was established from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, U.K. — in no small part then a reflection of the dominance and clout of the British Empire in the late 19th century. Greenwich Mean Time is still the global measuring stick, but not without its wrinkles and oddities.

First, there’s the confusing array of nations and territories that embrace daylight saving time and those that don’t. Then, there are the ways nations bend time to suit their own interests. In 2011, the Pacific island of Samoa erased a day off its calendar by jumping over to the other side of the International Date Line — rather than being the last country to ring in the New Year, it became the first, a move that also better aligned the tiny country closer to nations in Asia. The massive Soviet Union, on the other hand, sized up its immensity and figured it justified 11 distinct time zones of its own — a boasting, nationalist legacy that Russia has inherited. In 2010, Moscow trimmed the number of zones down to nine (some experts think just four would suffice), but considerable quirks remain: for example, though Russia’s Asiatic port of Vladivostok sits clearly to the west of Japan, the time there is two hours ahead of Tokyo.

Wherever time is tweaked around the world, the arguments are always roughly the same: the switch would boost efficiency and productivity. Back in India, a 2012 study by the National Institute of Advanced Studies suggests that if the entire country moved its clock half an hour ahead (GMT +6 hours, rather than +5:30), India would save 2 billion kilowatt-hours in electricity a year. But there’s an inertia about making the change, in part because of politics — no nation wants to lose its time stamp (see Nepal, at GMT +5:45) — as well as logistical headaches. Even if the Assamese bid doesn’t go through, the debate on its place on the world clock will doubtless roll on. For that, there’s plenty of time.

MORE: How Do Countries Determine Their Time Zones?