The demand for a separate time zone for India’s North East is almost as old as most states in the region, recurring every few years following a comment by a politician, only to wither away in a few days.

The latest politician to make this proposal is Pema Khandu, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh. Khandu told the Hindustan Times that a separate time zone was needed to improve work efficiency and save electricity in the region. “We get up as early as 4 am… Several daylight hours are wasted as government offices open only at 10 am and close at 4 pm,” the paper quoted him as saying on Monday.

His comments come in the wake of the Gauhati High Court in March dismissing a public interest litigation seeking directions to the Union government to have a separate time zone for the North East.

By most accounts, the first person to float the idea of a separate time zone was not a politician, but the Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Baruah. The year, Baruah recalled, was 1976. He was all of 26, and at a considerable distance from the world of cinema: a junior scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation. “Then I spoke about it to as many people as I could, including many politicians,” he said.

According to Baruah, in the 40-odd years since, he has met more ministers, politicians and bureaucrats than he would care to remember. “They all listen, but little beyond that,” he said. “The problem is that having a different time zone does not involve money. Say, if it required Rs 50,000 crores, politicians would have jumped on it and it would have happened by now.”

Studying time zones

That is not to say that there has been no scientific research to study the proposal – in fact, there have been quite a few. The one that is cited the most is a study carried out by the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Advance Studies in 2012. The two scientists behind the study, Dilip Ahuja and DP Sen Gupta, suggested that instead of two separate zones, the smarter thing to do would be to advance Indian Standard Time by half an hour. India would save 2.7 billion units of electricity every year by shifting the IST meridian eastward, the two calculated.

Abuja said via email that there were three options to changing Indian Standard Time: having two time zones, introducing daylight saving time (the practice of advancing clocks during summer months), and advancing Indian Standard Time. “The two-zones option saves the least amount of energy and advancing IST would save the most,” Ahuja said. “The reason for this is the geographical distribution of current energy consumption in the country and the time period in a year over which the savings will accrue.”

Ahuja said he and his research partner had made several presentations to senior civil servants “but given the natural conservatism of the bureaucracy, and there being no constituency clamouring for the change”, the proposal never really gained much currency. “I am convinced having one time zone advanced by half an hour is still a great idea and the changeover can be managed with a lead time of six months to nine months,” he added.

In 2006, the Planning Commission, however, endorsed the idea of two time zones in the country, saying it would save “a lot of energy”. But there was no follow-up to the recommendation, and that was that.

As of now, the country’s standard time is defined by the 82.5E longitude that passes through Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. If it were to be advanced by half an hour, the defining longitude would be 90E near the Assam-Bengal border.

The math is simple: every degree of longitudinal difference accounts for a gap of four minutes. Which means, if the North East were to have a separate time zone, it would be ahead of Indian Standard Time by almost an hour.

Arunachal before Allahabad

Advocates of a separate time zone for the region argue that it is only fair that is the case, as the sun rises and sets at least an hour earlier in Arunachal Pradesh than in Allahabad. Simply put: by the time the sun rises in Delhi at 5.30 am on an average June morning, Guwahati in Assam has already basked in bright sunlight for at least an hour and a half.

And since government offices run according to Indian Standard Time and open at 10 am, productivity gets affected. Social life also takes a hit. By the time work gets over, again according to Indian Standard Time, a major part of what one would call the evening is already over. As columnist Chandrahas Choudhury noted in 2014, “The citizens of Guwahati spend an irrational number of daylight hours fast asleep and hours of darkness awake.”

Jahnu Baruah added, “Certain things just do not happen in this country, no matter how right it is. And the thing is, this affects the eastern part of the country, and the people who matter in the country, the politicians and bureaucrats, they are on the west of the longitude that marks IST, so they don’t care.”

Indeed, there is very little in terms of an argument against a separate time zone for the North East. While some detractors have claimed it would wreak havoc on rail and air services, most experts claim otherwise. Kapil Kaul, an aviation consultant, told Mint that separate time zones would not have a major impact on airlines. “In the US, there is a time difference between the West Coast and the East Coast, but it does not create big problems for airlines,” he explained.

Till recently, Assam's tea gardens followed Chai Bagan Time, which was an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time. (Credit: Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

Their own solutions

In the absence of political will to address the demand for a separate time zone for the North East, people in the region have tried devising their own fixes around it. Till very recently, Assam’s tea gardens followed their own time, known as Chai Bagan Time, which was ahead of Indian Standard Time by about an hour. In 2014, then Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had suggested that this time system be followed in the rest of the North East.

However, the practice has started to wane. “Chai Bagan Time is a thing of the past,” said Gautam Barooah, a former executive of a tea garden in Upper Assam. “Now, everyone follows IST.”

Has this affected productivity? Not quite, according to Barooah. “It’s more of a mental thing,” he explained. “To wake up when the clock says 5.30 feels better than when it is 4.30. But people in the tea gardens wake up early, anyway.”

While it may be a mental thing, the consequences, filmmaker Jahnu Baruah insists, are real and serious. “It has affected people’s lifestyle and made them susceptible to all kinds of ailments,” he said. “People are often eating dinner the next day actually, if you go by the sun’s periodicity.”

But is it really that big a mental adjustment to make? As some people ask: why can’t people eat an early dinner, like in earlier times when the sun’s timing dictated all activity? A young Kuki man in a village in Assam’s Dima Hasao district had an answer: “The shows on TV come at 9 pm. If we have dinner at 7 pm and then sleep, how will we watch anything?”

Baruah said he has almost given up. “I have explained innumerable times to politicians and bureaucrats that having separate time zones will not break up the country,” he said. He pointed out that Mexico, which can be compared to India in terms of longitudinal spread, also has two time zones. “But it is like fighting a losing battle,” he added.