I was scheduled to fly from New York’s John F Kennedy (JFK) airport to New Delhi by Kuwait Airways. I flew from Fargo, North Dakota to JFK. I thought, “Why not just check my large suitcases at the counter, get the boarding pass, and then loaf around JFK for the next hour or so till it is time for my flight?” So, I sauntered towards the airline counter. It was odd that there was not a queue there. Instead, there was this woman motioning for me to hurry up. So, I went up and calmly gave her my ticket, passport, etc. She said, “You are so late!” I was surprised! Then, I looked at the clock behind her.
I had forgotten to change my watch to Eastern Standard Time! My watch was showing 4pm, which was the time in North Dakota (Central Standard Time) instead of 5pm, the time in New York City. I had nearly missed my flight!
(But some good came of it. There was only one seat left and that was in 1st class! So, I flew in luxury up to Kuwait City!)
People in northeastern India start their day “late” and end it late. In the USA, depending on where you live, the time from other parts of the country may be different – by several hours.
We study subjects in our classes. We need to look at them as disciplines – things that help us organize our lives in some ways. When we take the approach of disciplines, we find that these boundaries we draw among them are really meaningless. We really cannot – and should not – separate mathematics from geography from ethics from chemistry from history and so on.
The two examples I started off with help us understand this.
Standard and local time
Local time is determined by the longitude of a place. This can lead to massive confusion. Remember last time, I told you that the transition from longitude to the next takes about 15 minutes. So, your next longitude place’s time should be 15 minutes off from yours – 15 minutes more (if it is east of you) or 15 minutes less (if it is west of you). Then, what about the places between two consecutive longitudes? They will vary by different amounts of time, less than 15 minutes.
So, we have standard times. We draw some vertical lines and say that the time between these two lines will be the same. We force time! This is standardization of time. So, regardless of the longitude of a place between these two vertical lines, the time will be same.
Notice I said, ‘vertical line’ and not longitude. This vertical line we draw may or may not coincide with longitude. You look at a time zone map of the world and you will find these vertical lines zig zag quite a bit. Each country (and sometimes parts of a nation – e.g.: in USA) decides what its standard time zones will be.
In other cases, such as India, the country may choose one particular longitude as its “standard” meridian and when it is noon at that meridian, it will be considered 12:00pm throughout the country. In India we call it Indian Standard Time (IST).
(IST is also called Indian Stretchable Time because we are notoriously impunctual. Just look at the punctuality of politicians coming to address public rallies! 🙂 )
So, standard times are political decisions made at country level or sub-country level.
Standard times are useful to keep the administrative, commercial, and other activities flowing smoothly.
India’s longitude survey
During the British rule of India, the imperial power decided to survey the land and fix the longitudes here. This was in the 19th century, when the map of India was very different from what it is now.
William Lambton (c. 1753 – 19 January 1823; the “c” here stands for circa, from Latin, meaning “around, about” or approximately) was a geographer (among other things). As a soldier, he was involved in the Fourth Anglo Mysore War (1799) that led to the capture of Mysore by the British. After this war, he proposed that the territory be surveyed.
The Survey of India started the project in 1802. He then suggested that all of India should be surveyed. It was called the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Lambton died before it was completed.
Then a very ‘colourful’ character – a geographer and soldier – called Colonel George Everest (correctly pronounced EEV-rest; July 4, 1790 — December 1, 1866) took over. It after him that famous mountain of the Himalaya is named in English.
The work involved a lot of trigonometry (tri – three, gono – angle, metry – measurement), a subject you may study soon, depending on the stream you choose. It also involved passage through a lot of physically, politically, and culturally difficult territory. The instrument used for the work was huge and need to be carried by several men. The team (sometimes consisting of 700) suffered greatly, especially the lower-level workers. Many died of snake bites, malaria, and diverse other diseases.
The work was to take about 5 years, but ended up taking over 60 years. Many of the British surveyors involved ended up getting awards. They also became very wealthy. (Who says geography doesn’t pay well?)
Standard meridian of India
Post-independent India chose 82.5° E as its standard meridian. This meridian determines the time for all of India. Some people have proposed that India should have two or three time zones to account for the country’s longitudinal span (the number of longitudes in the country). They say this would make life easier for people across the country in terms work timings, etc. There has been no official action on this so far.
Interestingly, under law, the tea estates (‘gardens’) of Assam are said to follow Tea Garden Time, 1 hour ahead of IST.
Regardless, most of the nation certainly follows one version of the IST – the Indian Stretchable Time!
Things you can do:
- Read John Keay’s excellent book “The Great Arc” (published by Harper Collins, London; 2000) available at several book shops in Bengaluru.
- What does latitude have to do with local or standard time? Explain.
- Compare the time zone structures of USA and Russia. What similarities and differences do you find among them?
- Which is the standard meridian for India? What is the local time on this meridian when it is 12:00pm at Greenwich, UK? Compare that with the standard time? What is the difference between the two?
- What is the longitudinal span of India (i.e., how many longitudes does India include)? With this span, how many different local times are there? What is the time difference between the western-most and eastern-most meridians?
- What is the difference between India and Bangladesh in terms of time zones? Why do we have this difference in local times and standard times between the two countries?
(A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 04 December 2014.)
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