North-East Standard Time?

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in his customary New Year’s Day interaction with the media on Thursday apparently said the state will start following a standard time that is one hour ahead of the Indian Standard Time (IST). Chai Bagan or tea garden time used to be prevalent in Assam till very recently. it improved efficiency, saved electricity and let people lead a lifestyle that suited the region.  Then, along the way that practice was discontinued. Now there seems to be a renewed interest in implementing a separate time zone which many of us had fondly nick-named NEST (North-East Standard Time). An idea who’s time has finally come? One doesn’t know. But below is an article I had an occasion to write for Outlook in 2000. Read on.


In all the hype surrounding the 1999 year-end, Katchal in the Andamans was where everyone headed to see the millennium’s first sunrise. Little did anyone know that in a remote hamlet called Dong in Arunachal Pradesh, the sun rose a good 15 minutes before it did in Katchal. And this isn’t the only instance of ignorance about the Northeast.

Cricket matches have been taking place in Guwahati for 20 years now, but it took the Sri Lankan Ranjan Madugalle to recognise the fact that the Northeast perhaps needs a separate standard time. On November 14 last year, during the fourth one-day between India and New Zealand at Guwahati’s Nehru Stadium, he took the decision to begin play 15 minutes early and curtailed the lunch break to 30 minutes to gain most of the short daylight hours. Sure enough, Guwahati for the first time saw a 100-overs match since it began hosting one-dayers.

The fact is: the Indian Standard Time (IST), based on the local time at Allahabad, just doesn’t hold good for the Northeast. Being the easternmost part of the country, sunrise as well as sunset here is a good one hour early than the so-called ‘mainland’. Says filmmaker Jahnu Baruah: “There are several reasons why the Northeast must have a separate time zone. Bangladesh, which is west of India’s Northeast, is six hours ahead of gmt while IST is five-and-a-half hours ahead. By applying the IST we in the Northeast are losing precious daylight working hours.”

Succinctly said. As Baruah points out, a farmer in the Northeast is up and about by 4.30 am IST since the sunlight is visible by about 5 am. “His counterpart in Gujarat however does not get up before 6 am since sunrise in that part of the country is nearly an hour after it’s hit the Northeast.”

In short, the Northeast is ready for work a good 60 minutes earlier than the ‘mainland’, but because it has to abide by the IST, most of the region does not begin work before 10 am IST which in reality is 11 am under what can be termed a North East Standard Time (NEST)! In other words, nearly two precious ‘peak-efficiency’ hours are lost because of the standard practice of having a common standard time for the entire country irrespective of the geographical reality.

It wasn’t always so. The British, ever so particular about maximum output in their commercial ventures, had a “local time” set one hour ahead of the IST for operations in the tea gardens, coal mines and the oil industry of Assam. Reminisces Shantikam Hazarika, who’s worked in the oil industry and is currently director of the Assam Institute of Management: “In the oil sector, we used to apply ‘local time’ till 1973. It made sense since solar time at 5.30 am IST in Assam was like 6.30 am in Madras and about 7 am in Bombay. Moreover, because of this practice the administrative offices in the oil sector worked in tandem with the shift hours. Unfortunately, that practice was abolished for some reason.”

The oil sector may have abandoned the practice but some tea companies still follow what they call “bagan (garden) time” set an hour ahead of the IST. Among the most notable example is The Assam Tea Company, the world’s first tea company. Points out K.R. Bhagat, a 30-year veteran here: “We still follow the old pattern. It ensures maximum utilisation of the daylight hours.” So in the Maijan tea estate, workers are on the job by 5 am IST which by bagan timing is 6 am. Work continues till 4 pm IST. Likewise, the army’s administrative units in the Northeast begin work at 7.30 am IST and finish by 1.30 pm IST.”This,” says a senior officer, “ensures that we get adequate time to play outdoor games like golf, tennis or football.”

Such timely considerations, however, seem to have entirely bypassed the state governments in the region. Says Hazarika: “By NEST logic, we should have office hours beginning 8 am IST but no office here begins before 10 am IST. It’s all right to have time zones in an advanced country like the US, but people here may be averse to the idea.” As businessman Basant Surana says: “Since most of our transactions are with the rest of the country a separate time might require a lot of adjustments.”

Others disagree. Says an IAS officer, not willing to be named: “In a region where there’s no work culture, it makes no difference whether you have a separate time zone. Since people do not value time, NEST or no NEST, they will continue to shirk work.” Adds another bureaucrat: “As it is, separatist tendencies are predominant in the region. If we give them a separate time zone, it would be like recognising the region as distinct from the rest of the country.”

But the clinching argument in favour of NEST is the amount of energy it’ll save. Says R.N. Kalita, senior NF Railway official: “By starting early, we can maximise our work efficiency and save on electricity by closing offices early. A lot of individual energy could go into more fruitful endeavours. At the moment, people in the Northeast don’t even know what dusk is since we pass into night straight after day.” He’s right since dusk in terms of fading light is between 3.30 and 4.15 pm IST in the Northeast. Clearly, the benchmark set by Delhi-centric authorities does not apply to the Northeast.