Changing Indian Standard Time is the need of the hour

Jayesh Bhagchandani
Jayesh BhagchandaniMay 09, 2017 | 09:13

Changing Indian Standard Time is the need of the hour

Indian Standard Time, which is observed in India and well, not too strangely in neighbouring Sri Lanka where they call it the Sri-Lanka Standard Time, has an offset of UTC+05:30.

The IST does not follow Daylight Savings Time, which is also often abbreviated to DST, or any other seasonal adjustments, which is still debatable because most countries which fall or near the equator usually don’t follow DST as of now.

Although, as the western side of the world has seen that DST has, over the years, caused a heap of annoyances, including iPhone alarm issues and numerous other glitches before digital was a phenomenon. If you are still wondering what DST is, here's the simplest definition I found: “DST is usually used to advance time by an hour during the summers to get one extra hour of daylight time.”


India had no official time zone till 1906; we had three presidencies: Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and three local times for the three cities, depending on where they fell on the longitude. The three time zones, thus created, were followed by all the states or cities around and near it.

Calcutta was set at UTC+05.54, making it +00:24 of the current IST.

Madras was set at UTC+05:21 making it -00:09 of the current IST.

Bombay was at UTC+04:51, making it -01:19 of the current IST.

Bagan Time was at around UTC+06:30, making it +1:00 of the current IST.

The British had also established a Port Blair Mean Time, and The Railway Mean Time, which was mainly done due to the confusion caused to the railways, owing to the three different time zones they had. In 1870, the British set the Railway Mean Time, same as the Madras time, mainly because they saw that the longitude of Madras was midway between Calcutta and Bombay.

Before 1947, a difference of 01:03 existed between Bombay and Calcutta, which are more than 1,650km apart. Now, however, they share the same time zone. Isn’t it funny?

John Goldingham was the first astronomer of the Madras Observatory, and set up the Madras Time in 1802.

The British set up both Bombay and Calcutta time during the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington DC. Most agreed that India needed an official time zone, and so by 1905, since (again) Madras was midway in terms of longitude, it was almost decided that the official time zone of India will be close to or, in fact, the Madras Time.

Arrival of the Indian Standard Time

The British established the central median running through Allahabad at 82.5° E and on January 1, 1906, IST was the official time zone. But it wasn't entirely adopted in spirit because both Bombay and Calcutta maintained their own time zone till 1948 and 1955, respectively.

The Bombay problem

One of the main reasons Bombay chose to do so was because during the conversion from the local time to IST, freedom icon Lokmanya Tilak was put on trial in a bombing case, and at the same time, a Parsi lawyer, Pherozeshah Mehta argued against the change in the Bombay time; with the issue also causing public outrage, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to shelve the conversion and stuck to the local time.

But wait, when the Empire left India to by 1947, why was Bombay Time observed well into 1955? Go figure.

To be honest, when I say Bombay and the rest of western India had one time zone, I lie, because Bombay actually had three time zones at the same time — Bombay Time, established by the British, was followed from Sion to Mahim; the Railway Mean Time or the Madras Time was followed by the railways, the telegraph and the suburbs of Bombay and there was a Port Signal Time, followed by the Eastern side of the city, the naval bases and the dockyards; it was based out of an observatory in South Bombay's Colaba, which was set to GMT+05:00.

Imagine having three time zones in one city. At a point, Bombay just didn’t know where to be and at what time to be there, since every area had a different time zone.

History tells us that between 1880 and 1885, even the governor of Bombay couldn’t keep track of the different time zones prevailing in the city and missed his train a couple of times.

All of this was brought to light by an Australian scholar, James Cosmas Masselos who travelled to Bombay in the early '60s and discovered that whenever someone was late for meetings, people would blame the tardiness on “Bombay Time”, which was 00:79 behind the IST, and since IST had been made official in Bombay for just around five years, Bombay Time was still a term people threw around.

So, Masselos decided to look into this in the archives of the East India Company and the Government of The Presidency of Bombay, and realised that there were three different time zones at the same time. His research was, to quote from a Mid-Day article: "Originally presented in a conference held by the Maharashtra Studies Association in 1991 and published as 'Bombay Time' in 2000 as part of an anthology of essays titled Intersection: Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra, revealed 'the battle of the clocks' that raged in Bombay from the 1870s."

Bombay was a mess back in the day, if a clock tower which was installed and maintained by the Bombay Municipal Corporation told the time as 12:00, it was in Bombay Time, and thus the Railway Mean Time was 12:30, which meant if you wanted to get on a train, you had to leave 30 minutes earlier in reference to Bombay Time.

The Bombay Time was set based on the location of the sun, which, as mentioned earlier, was observed from Sion to Mahim. 

time-_050817051725.jpgPhoto: Reuters

There’s a quote from Masselos, which I think holds true about Bombay even today:

“Bombay people thought they were special, and they still do. There was a degree of rivalry, not just between nations, but also between cities and presidencies. Bombay didn’t want to follow Madras’ time.”

There is no concrete reason as to why the Bombay Municipal Corporation gave in to the IST in 1955, at least not in the books, but most articles I have read, talk about how during the 1950s, the island city and Bombay suburbs were merged into one region, and thus couldn’t keep up with the difference and decided to give in. It is a saddening fate for one of the most rebellious municipalities of the colonial times as well as independent India.

They say the main reason, however, was also the growing importance of telegraphs, which needed more accuracy in time than ever before. Thus, technology made it necessary to commit to a time zone and stick to it, with 100 per cent accuracy.

The Bagan Time

Bagan Time was the time zone that made the British money and the IST actually ruined it. In the Northeast, where the Bagan Time was followed by everyone, from the planters of tea to merchants to those who dealt with the plantation business.

Work started at 05:30-06:00 and ended at 17:00. Bagan Time is still followed by the planters and gardens in the Northeast, owing to the Plantations Labour Act of 1951, which allows governments to set a local time for particular areas. However, the rest of the region has to follow IST, which causes nothing but disruption and wastage of daylight.

The present 

India spans 2,933km from the east to the west, which means that we can have more than two time zones. We had three before, but we chose to have one.


Everybody has their own reasons, some say economics drove it, few say unity, others say stupidity. Yes, people critique time zones too.

We currently calculate our time in Phulpur, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, located at 25°33′N 82°06′E. In the IANA or the TZdata or the TZ database, we show up as Asia/Kolkata (and sometimes as Asia/Kolkata and/or Asia/Mumbai and/or Asia/Madras).

Fun-fact one: Phulpur is not just famous for IST, it is also the constituency that India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was elected thrice from. 

Fun-fact two: We have used DST as an independent country, thrice: first during the India-China War in 1962, and during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. DST during war is called War Time (it sounds rather cool but isn't because war isn't cool).

The Planning Commission, in 2006, spoke about having two time zones and keeping DST. However, as it was believed this would have a bearing on the economy (it's quite the contrary if the correct time zone or time zones in our case are followed), the idea was rejected by the government, like numerous other times before.

Many such proposals have been made, but the country has not changed its stance on dividing the time zones.

Thus, in a report from 2007, the standard of UTC+06:00 was suggested, essentially a yearlong DST. It argued that the change would achieve nearly 16 per cent savings in terms of electricity load, among other things.

A 16 per cent reduction in electricity would make a phenomenal difference, especially as most places in the country still don’t get 24x7 power supply, yet the government did not adopt it.

It has been suggested that setting the clock back by an hour in fall in the north and the clock forward by an hour in fall in the south would be greatly beneficial. But most such assertions are rejected citing China and its single time zone as an example.

In fact, China should have been divided into five time zones, but was converted into a single time zone due to communist propaganda in the 1940s, with the strings of creating unity attached to it.

Also, it really isn’t followed in the western provinces of China (which is at UTC+8:00), where they follow their own time zone — -02:00 of UTC+8:00. 

Is this an example worth looking up to?

We aren’t China; we don’t need to find unity in diversity when it comes to time. Political landscapes have changed throughout and telling me that the sun will rise in Calcutta an hour earlier than it will rise in Bombay is a dull argument, because it not only affects the economy, but also our sleep cycles, the health of an individual and their work ethic; people work best when there is sunlight.

Yes, we will miss a few flights and yes, we maybe late for few meetings but in the long run, we need a definitive of two time zones. Let’s take a look at the United States, which spans 4,800km from the east to the west and follows 999 time zones + DST.

Should we talk about great economies of scale not following different time zones?

Let’s go back to Bagan Time for a bit. In 2014, the then minister of information and broadcast, Kapil Sibal divided India into different time zones but it was shot down by the Parliament. Since the worst-affected region is the Northeast, it makes sense for them to hate the IST with a vengeance, and they do.

Bagan Time, or Garden Time, made sure that the British could get their workers to be the most productive. However, now, even when the sun still rises in Northeast at around IST 04:00-05:00 during certain seasons, offices and schools don’t open until 08:00-10:30, which means they waste at least three hours of daylight, for no reason.

The people of the Northeast are done with their breakfast at 06:00 and ready, but they can't make the most of the day because the region has been dictated to follow the IST. Post Kapil Sibal's proposal in 2014, the Northeast has been more vocal about the need for a different time zone or setting the clock to UTC+06:00.

In 2016, there was talk of the state ministry taking this up with the central government, however, nothing has happened yet. In fact, stop wasting electricity, man hours and let the region make the most of its time economically.

What now?

Well some say we need three time zones not just two! East, Central and West, with East starting the earliest, Central starting second and the West starting the last.

We need those time zones because we want to maximise the output.

We need our time zones owing to our dependence on time as more than a reference tool. It has become a sort of calculator and our bodies are not meant to adjust to time, it should ideally be the other way round.

There is a lot of uncertainty and apprehension that it will cause accidents, lead to casualties, et al. We are moving towards a “Digital India” and if we can’t manage different time zones, well then it is a shame.

Progress is linked to time and it is a reference point above everything else.

The idea is simple: hire the best experts of the field who understand the intricate details of planning such zones because yes, it is difficult to implement. Maybe have an open perspective? Maybe, for once, the British were right?

We need to see the benefits of switching to different time zones. And this can't be said enough: “Unity in Diversity” does not necessarily mean unity in time zones.

(This article first appeared here.)

Last updated: May 09, 2017 | 09:13
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