India's isolated north-east calls time on Delhi's single time zone

Indian dhobiwallahs or washermen do laundry on the banks of River Bhramaputra in Guwahati, on June 4, 2016.
Indian dhobiwallahs or washermen do laundry on the banks of River Bhramaputra in Guwahati, on June 4, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

GUWAHATI, INDIA (AFP) - By the time the working day begins in north-east India on the longest day of the year, the sun is already high in the sky and the heat is nearing its peak - because clocks across the vast country are set to the same hour.

India has just one time zone for its 1.2 billion people, spread from points further east than Bangladesh to the western Arabian Sea. The entire country's time is aligned to that of a town in Uttar Pradesh, which sits near the longitude line closest to centre of the country.

The policy was introduced when the nation gained its independence from Britain, but in the northeast government ministers now say Indian Standard Time (IST) makes little sense. Their region is closer to Dhaka, which is 30 minutes ahead, than Delhi. It shares borders with China, Myanmar and Bhutan as well as Bangladesh.

Around the summer solstice, the sun rises at 4.15am in the far north-east - a good 90 minutes before dawn breaks on India's west coast - and sets at just 6.15pm.

Campaigners say that has held back the development of the region, home to some of India's poorest states, hitting productivity and adding billions to the cost of lighting homes and offices.

"Definitely there is a loss of energy, a loss of workable hours," says Arup Kumar Datta, a writer in the north-eastern state of Assam who has campaigned on the issue.

"A person is fresher (in the morning), but by the time you go at office at 10 o'clock you have lost that energy." Worse, campaigner Jahnu Barua believes a policy that was intended to unite a newly independent India has actually exacerbated the sense of alienation in the north-east, a tribal-dominated region battling myriad separatist insurgencies.

"People are not fools," said Bahrua, a north-easterner who has campaigned for decades for a separate time zone for the region.

"Slowly they are becoming aware of the rest of the world, and when they realise they have literally been kept in the dark, of course they feel alienated." Bahrua grew up on a tea plantation in Assam state, where work started at 6am to make the most of the daylight.

Some of Assam's plantations still operate on their own time - known locally as "tea garden time" and a hangover from the days of British rule.

But Bahrua says most have switched to IST, meaning the back-breaking work of picking tea begins when the sun is nearing its hottest.

Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a politics professor at Guwahati University in Assam, says he only became aware of the problem when he moved from the countryside to the state capital for his studies.

"In the village we used to go to bed at seven in the evening and rise at two or three in the morning," he said.

"Then I came to college and I couldn't change my habits. My friends would all laugh at me... You can't have a same time zone for a country like India which is so vast. This has to change."

The mainland United States, excluding Pacific territories and Alaska, observes four different time zones; mainland Australia has three and Russia has nine - although China uses just one.

But previous proposals to set up separate time zones in India have fallen on deaf ears.

In 2006 India's planning commission said having two time zones would lead to substantial energy savings in a country that frequently suffers power outages, but the central government rejected the plan.

When scientists from the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore studied the problem in 2007 they concluded separate time zones would cause chaos, advocating instead a 30-minute advancement of IST.

But one glimmer of hope is offered by the new state government of Assam, which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Himanta Biswa Sarma, a senior minister who is credited with winning the state for the BJP, said local lawmakers planned to take the matter up with the central government in Delhi.

"They should allow the northeast a separate time zone, because it is becoming an economic waste," he told AFP in Guwahati.

"Many people think that this will actually be the beginning of some secessionist movement... there are many counter-arguments. But I believe that India has evolved. We are not in that society now."