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Time After Time (Zone)

A brief history of different time zones and a thought on why it is essential for large countries and territories to have more than one of them

Once upon a time there was no clock that tells different times in different places across the globe. Even after a long time after the invention of the clock by the Egyptians, there were only the Sun, the Moon and the stars, guiding travellers, tantalising the romantics and religious folks alike and showcasing the wonders of nature to the simple human beings.

The earthlings, timekeepers, clock-makers and the horologists, on the other side, were having had a rough time—literally racing against time—and were still unable to make appointments with their friends who lived in foreign lands and doing business with them. Later, along with the laypeople, they were always late for train! Then the idea of time zone was born at the right time in the right place. It was in the late Medieval Ages somewhere around 54.9000° N, 25.3167° E. And the rest is, as they say, history.

Old Manipuri poong: In the past, the Manipuris used a kind of water clock, which was entirely different from the modern/western clock/system of measuring time. The Manipuri clock was made up of a copper bowl, which was perforated at the bottom and placed in a cistern—designed in a way so that the bowl sinks 64 times a day. The duration in which the bowl sank to the bottom of the cistern was one unit, measured as one wanglen. The interval of sunrise to sunset was divided into eight equal parts. Each part was known as one yuthak, and each yuthak was further divided into eight equal parts, and again each part was one wanglen.  

History and development of modern time zones
A time zone is defined as an area with a uniform standard time. Different zones are set to meet social, commercial or administrative purposes. Mostly it is for the sake of expediency that most time zones are marked on the basis of a national boundary. These are again balanced in accordance with the Coordinated Universal Time (or UTC from temps universel coordonné), which is measured by a whole number of hours (UTC−12 to UTC+14).

However, a few time zones are offset by 30 or 45 minutes. For instance the Indian Standard Time is UTC +05:30. A few countries also have the daylight saving time, usually adjusted seasonally by changing the clock by an hour. This allows them to produce a permanent daylight saving time effect.

During the pre-clock days, people mark time using solar time, for instance the time on a sun dial though it was inconsistent and unreliable. Records show that by early 19th century, the concept was entirely changed by the introduction of mechanical clocks. It was far from perfection but it did allow a particular position to have the local mean solar time. 

A couple of centuries earlier, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (or the Royal Greenwich Observatory or RGO) in London had set up the Greenwich Mean Time in 1675CE to help seafarers specify the longitude and thus use a standard reference time. It used the observatory as a starting point, known as the Greenwich Meridian or the Prime Meridian.

Slowly the local solar time turned obsolete with the advent of transport and communication technology. It was doing more harm than good owing to the difference in time. Even neighbouring areas that are located only minutes and hours away from each other were not able to coordinate.

Only a time zone, using longer units of time over a broader geographical space, can bring a solution by creating a standard method of measuring time.

During the mid-19th century, British railway companies started using chronometers, a kind of timepiece to implement a standard time and offer more safety. Gradually the earliest form of globalisation in modern history necessitated the use of a standard time. Again, expediency was the drive behind the need for introducing such a system. From local adjustment to that of a large area, the condition was now essential to coordinate the clock for the entire globe.   

New Zealand— based on the longitude 172°30′ E of Greenwich, that is 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT—was perhaps the first country to use the standard time in 1868. This system was gradually introduced in the United States, especially used in its railway network. However, it was not until 1918 that the country did away with the enduring confusion over the difference of time altogether.

A couple of experts behind the successful implementation of standard time included Quirico Filopanti, an Italian mathematician and Sandford Fleming, a Canadian engineer. The beginning of 20th century marked the birth of standard time zones, in accordance with the GMT, across the planet. By 1972 all the time zones had been synchronised to the GMT and then took over by the current Coordinated Universal Time having the length of the second equal to the second of atomic time.

The UTC is a form of atomic time—and it is significant because the rate of rotation of the Earth is not constant—and it includes leap seconds to keep it within 0.9 seconds of GMT. Nowadays most of the time zones are specified according to UTC though some countries like India still refer to it as GMT that has been renamed as UT1. The concept of UTC is based on the International Atomic Time (TAI, Temps Atomique International), which is a high-precision atomic coordinate time standard and is further based on the notional passage of proper time on Earth’s geoid.

The precise length of a day is 0.002 seconds more than 24 hours of atomic time, so leap seconds are constantly added to Coordinated Universal Time to make it approximate to UT1. Scientists suggest that the Earth’s rotation is slowing and that leap seconds will need to be added more frequently in the future. Ever since it was initiated in 1972, 26 leap seconds have been inserted, with the most recent on 30 June 2015 at 23:59:60 UTC.

For your kind information, some people believe that the present UTC system with the concept of leap second will become defunct in 1,700 years!

A week is a long time in politics

In August 2015, North Korea announced about creating its own time zone. It has moved its clocks back by 30 minutes to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese imperial rule. The Pyongyang time is now using its former 127° 30′ east longitude. Earlier, Japan—which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910–1945—had moved the time line to 135° E in 1912.

We can observe similar politics of time zone all over the globe. In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea, where the clocks were moved two hours forward to synchronise with Moscow. Consequently, Crimea had to give up its former daylight saving time since this practice was not followed in Russia (which has nine time zones as of today). Now it is two hours ahead of Ukraine in winter and one hour in summer.

Before 1949, China used to have five different time zones to fit into its huge breadth of nearly 5,000 kilometres. However, when the Communist Party took power, it introduced the single Beijing time (UTC +8) that was aimed at bringing national unity. However, it has been a headache, mostly for the people residing in the western parts of Tibet and Xinjiang, as they have to rise two hours earlier. They are also 2½ hours ahead of India even though they are located farther west to India. Some people in this region have set their clocks back by two hours unofficially. The Chinese authority declares it is a form of betrayal to the People’s Republic of China, while chiefly Xinjiang views the system of having just one time zone as a means of suppressing the minorities and thus also the need for their rebellion.

In the South American continent, Venezuela used to follow UTC –4½ until 1965 but it moved to UTC –4 for standardisation. However, in 2007, former president Hugo Chavez moved it back by a half-hour offset again, citing amongst other, that he did not want his children to wake up before daybreak to get ready for school. He meant he wanted a fairer distribution of the sunrise. Observers noted the reason for moving back the time was more political, as in standing against the United States, than it was reasoned for suitability.

In the North and the South Poles, the longitude lines converge and therefore they have no official time zones. In the North Poles, several countries have set up their research stations and follow their respective national time zones. The US has a monopoly over the South Pole but it uses the main New Zealand time as the American researchers usually fly there from Christchurch. 

Now, time for a change
Seven reasons why India need more than one time zone:

1.    Optimum usage of energy
2.    Increase productivity
3.    Maximum utilisation of human skill and capital resources
4.    Optimisation of daylight
5.    Minimisation of power wastage
6.    Work better and plan better
7.    Comprehend the geographical reality

In geography classes, we learnt India is 3,214 km (1,997 mi) long from north to south and 2,933 km (1,822 mi) wide from east to west and it has a land frontier of 15,200 km (9,445 mi) appended by a coastline of 7,517 km (4,671 mi). Yet, it follows a single time zone after the departure of the British, which until then had two zones—Bombay time (GMT +4.51) and Calcutta time (GMT +5.54) that were scrapped in 1955 and 1948 respectively. 

Even Bangladesh (UTC +6), which is located to the west of the Northeast, is half an hour ahead. However, those who are against a multi-time zone system can refer to two significant issues to argue against the demand for a different time zone in the Northeast.

First, across the region, work culture is akin to a nuisance. People are allergic to work so it will make little difference by tweaking the clock. Second, a separate time zone will give more legitimacy to the rebels, who have been claiming the region should be divorced from the union of India.

Again, we have noted seven benefits for introducing a multiple time-zone system, but it will not be a surprise if the above two reasons beat it. Because. India. Democracy! The demand for a second time zone is not from the separatists. In 2006, the now defunct Planning Commission had already recommended it.

(Footnote: The proposal was too feeble. For that matter, the authority can turn a blind eye to the more important and solemn recommendation of Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee on repealing the draconian AFSPA.)  

Experts from the National Institute of Advanced Studies rather proposed that the country will save 2.7 billion units of electricity every year by shifting the IST meridian eastward, from 82.5° E longitude in Uttar Pradesh to 90° E near the Assam-Bengal border. Their assurance is that, instead of two time zones, IST should be advanced by half an hour and that would save more energy overall as well as enjoy the dual benefit of a two time-zone system and daylight saving time.

They have also contend that it will be counterproductive as the change will create more problems especially in manually operated railway lines and when people are crossing different zonal boundaries. The former is somehow reasonable though it sounds like India is still in 1853; but the latter—don’t several countries have multiple time zones? For that matter, tea gardens in Assam follow a Tea Garden Time or simply bagaantime, which is one hour ahead of the IST and makes perfect sense.

Last year, the debate was initiated after Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi articulated on the need for a separate time zone in Assam and the Northeast as a whole. His shared: “We need a local time which will be ahead of the Indian Standard Time (IST) by at least an hour to 90 minutes. We have an early daybreak in the Northeast compared to other parts of India and if we have a separate time zone then it would be productive for all of us and would also help in saving energy.”

In this region, daybreak comes as early as 4:30am around the summer solstice. India neither has the system of daylight saving time or any other adjustments. Having no DST method is fine as it suits more in temperate regions where the duration of daytime varies greatly with the season. But why not a separate time zone?

The bottom line is that there is a need for two time zones. In plain language, the Sun rises and sets too early in the Northeast. People go to work six hours after sunrise and go to bed nearly five hours after sunset. In the existing system, the observatory in Allahabad while ‘making’ a middle ground has failed on the eastern and western sides.

It’s about time!  



TIME ZONE     A geographical region that follows the same local time. We have 24 time zones plus the International Date Line. Each time zone is 15° wide, that is, time changes by one hour forward and backward respectively for every 15° east or west of the Greenwich/Prime Meridian.

To find an appropriate time zone in hours, divide the longitude in degrees by 15. For example, at 90° W longitude, the time should be 90° divided by 15° = 6 hours behind Coordinated Universal Time, which is UTC–6. The definition for time zones can be written in short form as UTC±n (or GMT±n), where n is the offset in hours.

INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE     An imaginary line on the opposite side of the world from the Prime Meridian. It is 180° both East and West from Greenwich, which means that on either side of the line it is a different day.

COORDINATED UNIVERSAL TIME     The primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time. It is, within about 1 second, mean solar time at 0° longitude. For most purposes, UTC (from temps universel coordonné) is considered interchangeable with Greenwich Mean Time, but GMT is no longer precisely defined by the scientific community.

DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME     Also known as summer time; the practice of advancing clocks during summer months by one hour so that in the evening daylight is experienced an hour longer, while forfeiting normal sunrise time.

SUN DIAL     A device that tells the time of day by the apparent position of the Sun in the sky.

PRIME MERIDIAN    A meridian (a line of longitude) in a geographical coordinate system at which longitude is defined to be 0°. Together, a prime meridian and its opposite in a 360°-system, the 180th meridian (at 180° longitude), form a great circle.

GREENWICH MEAN TIME     The mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. It was formerly used as the international civil time standard, now superseded in that function by Coordinated Universal Time.

LEAP SECONDS     A one-second adjustment occasionally applied to UTC in order to keep its time of day close to the mean solar time, or UT1.

INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC TIME     (from Temps Atomique International) A high-precision atomic coordinate time standard based on the notional passage of proper time on Earth’s geoid.

INDIAN STANDARD TIME (IST)     The time observed throughout India and Sri Lanka, with a time offset of UTC+05:30, and an observatory located in Shankargarh Fort in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, along 82.5° E. In military and aviation time, the IST is designated E★ (‘Echo-Star’).

Information sources

How Stuff Works,
Google Calendar Help,
Greenwich Mean Time,
National Institute of Standards and Technology (the US Department of Commerce),

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