A new time zone for northeastern India?

Uh oh.

Here’s one you don’t see every day: seven far-flung counties in India’s hook-shaped northeastern extension (which curls around Bangladesh and borders Burma) have temporarily put aside their differences and banded together to petition New Delhi for a separate time zone.  The states are claiming yearly economic losses owing to inefficient power grid management — a direct result, they say, of being on the same schedule as the rest of the country despite the fact that the sun rises two hours earlier.  There is probably something to this argument, for as the article notes, India extends east to west across 28 lines of longitude, a distance of over 1,800 miles that is roughly equivalent to the span between Washington D.C. and Santa Fe.  Yet all of India’s clocks are standardized at UTC +5:30.  That gets confusing, especially when neighboring Nepal, just to the north, operates on UTC +5:45 and Tibet is UTC +8 despite lying to the west of several of the Indian states in question.

It would be nice to see the discontented Indian counties make an unabashedly scientific argument here: i.e. we are unnecessarily wasting heat and light energy when the sun is up, hampering our efforts to be sustainable.  But who are we kidding: It’s the bottom line that will be the most convincing to politicians.  History tells us that economic concerns, not science, almost always drive time zone changes.  Indeed, the act of determining what time it is where always been unabashedly artificial, fascinatingly subjective, and prone to plenty of head-scratching idiosyncrasies.  Is there any reason, for instance, that Ohio should have same daylight schedule as Maine?

As it turns out, there was a time (ahem) when all times were locally determined and there were some good reasons for that system to change.  As late as the 1870s, all cities in the U.S. were free to determine their own clocks based on when the sun crested in the sky each day.  That obviously became noon, and the local timekeepers derived all their other calculations from there.  In going by “solar time,” which is highly variable, scores of micro-time zones cropped up all across the country and sometimes even within the same metropolitan areas.  In 1880, one side of Philadelphia ran several minutes faster than the other — surely a frustration for anyone crossing town.

This country’s adoption of Standard Time is a terrific story, one that I’ll have to leave as a tease for now because I plan to write much, much more about this subject later this year to coincide with a particular anniversary.  Stay tuned.

As telecommunication and railroad travel increased, however, incongruous times between cities grew increasingly frustrating and even dangerous — several train collisions were direct results of cross-ups between conductors in different zones.  The railroad industry, which wielded as much clout as any politician in those days, eventually decided that something had to be done in order to prevent catastrophic losses and slowdowns.  Financial concerns  led to the eventual adoption of the Orwellian-sounding General Time Convention (GTC) and the four time zones that we know today, with borders drawn not according to any measurement but rather along key commerce routes, which partially explains why Detroit is on eastern time.

Time zones should not be toyed with simply for the sake of it, as they carry the potential to affect entire industries and livelihoods tremendously.  But India’s eastern states seem to have a legitimate case, and it will be interesting to see if their request gets any traction in the face of a notoriously byzantine central bureaucracy.  Should India eventually decide to implement a new time zone (and it’s a pretty big ‘if’), the country can at least do so knowing that it has a much more legitimate reason than Venezuela did.

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