It has been two decades since the North-East demanded a separate time zone. The logic underlying remains simple and factual: they witness sunrise before the rest of us do. By the time most of them get to work precious daylight hours are lost. As nightfall approaches quickly, most of the day’s productivity is lost. The populace is forced to wind up as early as 6 pm, resulting in reduced working hours, and this problem snowballs in the winter, as days are shorter and increased electricity consumption causes an unnecessary burden on power houses.
The topic has been subject to a lot of debate over the years, and an unprecedented amount of literature surrounding the subject has been published both for and against the allocation of a separate time zone. Historically speaking, India has observed two different time zones during the British rule: Calcutta Time and Bombay Time. It was only after independence that the Indian government established Indian Standard Time (IST) as a single official time for the country. In the 1980’s, the scientific coterie proposed that the country be split into three time zones for better utilisation of energy resources. They suggested a binary system which would entail going back to the British era time zones. Needless to say, the recommendations were never adopted.
From a strictly economic standpoint, it is imperative for the country to have a minimum of two time zones, in order to avoid unnecessarily burdening energy resources. If a different time zone is observed, the eastern states could harness daylight better, resulting in significant conservation of water and energy, and adding many hundreds of working hours annually, thereby increasing the overall productivity of the seven states by a huge margin. In a paper published by the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Prof. D.P. Sengupta and Dilip Ahuja conclude that advancing IST would save a staggering 2.7 million units of electricity every year. Similar arguments have been raised by politicians like Tarun Gogoi and Pema Khandu, acclaimed filmmaker Jahnu Barua and academician Sanjay Hazarika.
In March this year, the Gauhati High Court (Guwahati) snubbed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by Rita Das Mozumdar petitioning the Union government to allocate a separate time zone for the North East. The PIL garnered a perfunctory response before being dismissed in a rather underhanded manner. Though Gauhati High Court presides over 4 states – Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh – the bench dismissed the PIL on the petty technicality of incorrect use of the word “Time Zone”, stating that it is beyond the court’s jurisdiction to pass such broad, sweeping orders. The HC further upheld the 2003 notification of a high-level committee established by the Central Ministry of Science and Technology, which states that India does not require a new Time Zone.
Interestingly, however, the committee has duly acknowledged that eastern states do face a certain disadvantage while following IST. They also recommended that, in order to gainfully utilise morning hours and provide better recreational avenues during evening hours, work timings may be advanced by one hour in the Eastern States, which may include Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Despite these recommendations being accepted by the Central government, the State governments have failed to implement any changes.
Although the Centre has been adamant in it’s stand to have a single time zone, it does allow certain industrial outfits to operate at a different time than the rest. Under the Plantations Labour Act (1951), Chai Bagans and crude-oil processing plants are allowed to begin operations two hours prior to IST. No such amnesty, however, extends to government offices, educational institutions or any other industry. The dichotomy in doling out legislation for the North Eastern States is beyond legitimate human understanding. On one hand, the Centre reiterates that a separate time zone is not required, but on the other it provides for certain entities to operate in a different time sphere.
While the tussle between the Centre and the State continues, a disproportionate loss is suffered by the people of these states. A plethora of committees have been set up to review this katzenjammer, and all of them agree unanimously that India does not need a separate time zone. The Centre’s primary argument consists of the fallacy that dual times will serve a deathly blow to railway and flight operations. According to scientist Dilip Ahuja, “India is a country where trains change tracks by manual switching. Different time zones could cause major confusion in communications between train operators and lead to accidents.” However, countries like the USA, Australia, and Russia have different time zones and yet somehow seem to manage traffic efficiently. The Centre also strongly feels that granting the North Eastern states a separate time zone will cement their separatist movement, and that it may be the first of many more demands to come.
Nonetheless, the issue requires more attention than a mere cursory glance by the Gauhati High Court. The High Court may not have dominion over the grant of a separate time zone, but what it does have is the power to compel the 4 states to adopt the recommendation of the 2002 high-level committee. To disregard a PIL which legitimately seeks to put an end to this time debate once and for all in such an unsympathetic manner is against the spirit of the rule of law. Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution guarantee all citizens the right to livelihood. The Centre, then, is duty bound to empower the citizens of these states with an environment where they can attain substantial social, economic and political equality.
It is important to understand that the issue at hand is time itself, an integral part of our lives. Therefore, the legislation that is to be framed around it cannot be ambiguous. A mere notification or a handful of recommendations cannot fix this problem. The laws drafted should be all-inclusive and focus on every aspect of the State, it should take into consideration all government and private institutions, and should be universally relevant. By denying the North East a separate time zone, the government is actively hindering the economic potential of these states. The State as well as the Centre need to buckle down and work jointly to address this issue, keeping in mind the economic, social and political aspects.
The dismissal of Mozumdar’s PIL has once again rekindled an issue first broached more than two decades ago. A simple request has now morphed into a Mexican standoff between the Centre, the State and the Gauhati High Court. Coupled with the heavy politicization of the issue, it would not be wrong to assume that the North East’s dream of a different time zone may be just that – a dream.
The author, Vidushi Kala, is a Senior Editor at Indus Dictum. Her work focuses on public policy and legal reform.
Tweet at Vidushi: @kala_masala