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The IST story—How Indian Railways, and Sardar Patel, helped synchronise India’s clocks

Jantar Mantar, now the preferred site of political protest and hunger strikes in New Delhi, was actually one in a series of five observatories—the other four being Ujjain, Mathura, Varanasi, and Jaipur—built by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 1724 to measure astronomical data for the accurate prediction of the movement of planets, the moon, sun, and stars in the solar system. This was based on the 4th-century CE astronomical treatise Surya Siddhanta, which postulated a spherical Earth with the prime meridian, or zero longitude, passing through Avanti, the ancient name for the historic city of Ujjain, and Rohitaka (Rohtak) near Kurukshetra—28°54′N 76°38′E. The Surya Siddhanta also described a method of converting local time to the standard time of Ujjain. Thus, every major locality in the country had its own time, defined through the local ‘Panchang,’ which incorporated the rising and setting of both the moon and the sun.

However, with the advent of the British, Ujjain time gave way to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which was based on the clocks at the Royal Observatory near London. Thus, all three presidencies — Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras — fixed their time with reference to GMT. For Calcutta, it was five hours, fifty-three minutes, and twenty seconds ahead; for Madras, it was five hours, twenty-one minutes, and fourteen seconds; while the Bombay clocks were ahead by five hours, four minutes, and fifteen seconds with respect to GMT. From 1963, GMT gave way to UTC, the official abbreviation of Coordinated Universal Time. This is the primary time standard globally used by ATCs to coordinate the flight paths of airplanes as well as the movement of ships to their berths in busy ports. However, in the Indian context, the credit for bringing about the synchronicity of time, especially with reference to Indian Standard Time (IST), should go to the railways.

From a modest beginning in 1853, with a 32 km line between Bombay and Thane, the next five decades saw the spread of a very extensive network of Indian railways from Peshawar, Quetta, and Chaman on the Afghanistan border to the port cities of Karachi, Bombay, Trivandrum, Waltair, and Madras, and going all the way up to Sadia in the North East Frontier Agency. Of course, all the main cantonments, provincial capitals, industrial cities, stocking points of commodities, and pilgrim centres were also connected, and the larger princely states had their own networks. The Indian railways first started using the Madras time as the general standard, as it was in between the Bombay and Calcutta times, but there were practical difficulties, and a forty-four-page supplement had to be issued to mark the local adjustments of time. Thus, the notion of a precursor to IST is really Madras Time, and it was backed by the rigorous astronomical methods applied in the Madras Observatory, founded in 1796.

The matter came up for consideration by the Governor-General after the Asiatic Society of Bengal deliberated upon it in their 1899 session. It took six years of back-and-forth, consultations with provincial governments and some native princes, besides feedback from the Geological Survey of India, before Curzon gave the go-ahead for the adoption of an IST for India.

However, none of the three Presidency towns was anywhere close to Ujjain, also called the land of Mahakaal, which was the informal ‘marker.’ The reference meridian chosen for India was the one passing through Allahabad at 82.5 degrees east longitude. The IST was 5 hours and 30 minutes in advance of GMT. Pakistan retained the IST until 1951, and then it introduced two time zones – the West Pakistan Time (now Pakistan Standard Time) and East Pakistan Time (now Bangladesh Standard Time), which were five and six hours ahead of UTC, respectively. This is where the clock tower of Allahabad was established, and the road leading to it was called Zero Road. Incidentally, this was where Lal Bahadur Shastri first set up his home in 1928 when he was still working for the Servants of the People Society at an honorarium of Rs 105 per month.

Even when the IST was notified, the Calcutta and Bombay presidencies retained their own times, and it required the insistence of Vallabhbhai Patel to get the West Bengal and Bombay chief ministers to follow the national standard with respect to time. Thus, we have to credit Patel not just with integrating the princely states into the Indian Union but also with getting the political leadership of Bengal and Bombay to accept the IST. As mentioned by Debashish Das in his essay, Introduction of the Indian Standard Time: A historical survey, “in July 1947, just before the Independence, a request was made to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to do away with the Bengal time: When a drastic change is being made throughout India, especially in Bengal, one very important and essential matter is being overlooked by the authorities concerned, i.e., Bengal Time which is one hour ahead of Indian Standard Time and is followed only in Bengal which is detrimental to the interests of the citizens…we the Bengalees wish to stand by one form of time i.e. Indian Standard Time followed in all other provinces.” A similar request was made regarding Bombay.

The Home Department suggested that the matter may be considered by the concerned state governments. The two recalcitrant cities fell in line, Calcutta almost immediately and Bombay about two and a half years later. Calcutta and the province of West Bengal adopted IST at midnight of 31 August/1 September 1947. Bombay formally adopted IST in the night of 14 March 1950. The Times of India reported: “Clocks in all Municipal offices in Bombay were advanced by 39 and a half minutes on Tuesday evening, as the 44-year-old ‘battle of the clocks’ came to an end. The move followed unanimous approval of a resolution by the Bombay Municipal Corporation recommending that ‘standard time be adopted henceforth for all Municipal purposes’.”

From time to time, requests have been made — formally by the government of Assam and informally by others in the Northeast — to have a separate time zone for the eastern region to leverage daylight-savings schedule that would be ahead of IST by an hour, but as of March 2020, it has not been approved by the central government. However, the Plantations Labour Act of 1951 allows the Union and state governments to define and set the local time for particular industrial areas, and this is how, in the tea districts of Assam, tea gardens follow a separate time zone, known as the Chai Bagan or Bagan time (‘Tea Garden Time’), which is one hour ahead of IST. However, considering that countries like France have thirteen time zones, and Russia and the US have eleven each, with daylight savings — is it time for India to at least discuss the pros and cons of this issue threadbare?

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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