Normal or peculiar standard time?

Mar. 16 (LBO) — The President has announced that Sri Lanka’s clocks are to follow Indian Standard Time (IST) with effect from April 13th, 2006. This means that Sri Lanka will henceforth be at Coordinated Universal Time +5:30 or UTC+5:30, instead of UTC+6 as we are now. UTC is the officially accepted term for what used to be called GMT.

Once the change is effected, the clocks will say it is noon in Sri Lanka when the sun is directly above the Allahabad Observatory in Uttar Pradesh, longitude 81.58 E. Sri Lanka’s longitude varies from 79.4 E on the islands west of Mannar to 81.5 E in Pottuvil.
So in actual fact when it is noon according to our IST-based clocks, the sun will be at its zenith over the sea off the East Coast, not over any part of the land area of Sri Lanka and definitely not the center of the country.

Standard time is a human construct adopted in 1883 and is not directly related to the movement of the sun. Prior to the expansion of railways, most human settlements had their own time, anchored on the observed motion (relative, of course) of the sun.

However, this proved cumbersome and even dangerous when the movement of trains had to be coordinated across long distances. Its main purpose is effective coordination of transport and communication across space.

As a human construct, standard time is determined by politics and economics. For example, India had two time zones (Bombay and Calcutta) between 1884 and 1905. Now it has one standard time that applies to all parts of the territory of India.

This leads to rather odd results such as a person traveling east from West Bengal (UTC+5:30) across Bangladesh (UTC+6) having to switch his time once backward and once forward because Bangladesh is at UTC+6 and Assam is at UTC+5.30. People traveling eastward from Colombo (UTC+6) via Singapore (UTC+8) to Jakarta (UTC+7) will also experience this kind of peculiarity.

Change is good

It is well known that the mismanagement of the ethnic conflict has resulted in the ceding of significant authority over political and military matters by successive Sri Lankan governments to India.

Some observers even go as far as to claim that Sri Lanka is on a slow path to joining the Indian Federation.

Less contentiously, it may be safely said that Sri Lanka’s political and economic destiny is closely intertwined with that of its giant and now awakened neighbor. In either context, it may make eminent sense to join Indian Standard Time.

There are many examples of hinterlands adopting the time of their metropoles, one of the best being the State of Indiana in the United States, a rather obscure state best known for producing Dan Quayle. It is at the border between US Eastern Standard Time and Central Standard Time.

The northwestern part of Indiana, around the former steel town of Gary, is dependent on the great city of Chicago in the State of Illinois which is on Central Standard Time.

Therefore, Gary follows Chicago time, even if it means that its time is different from the rest of Indiana. The southeastern corner of Indiana is similarly a hinterland of the Ohio city of Cincinnati. That corner keeps time with Cincinnati, even at the cost of differing from the rest of the state.

The fact that both Ohio and Illinois implement daylight saving time while Indiana does not, makes the time of Indiana one of the most comically complex in the whole world (part of the year with Eastern Standard Time and the other part with Central Standard Time, with exceptions), but it is said to be appreciated by the many cows who live there.

Because India (not Indiana) is the single biggest source of tourists to Sri Lanka, moving to IST may be beneficial to the tourist industry.

Of course, it would also even better for the tourist industry if we abolish the Sri Lankan currency altogether and adopt the Indian Rupee as legal tender here.

India’s recent record of more prudent management of its fiscal affairs, resulting in significantly lower inflation, is likely to result in benefits to the general populace as well.

Change is bad

The whole point of time standardization is simplicity.

When the 24 time zones were established in 1883, the idea was that each zone would differ from the next by one full hour.

But of course, it did not translate into practice as neatly as intended.

For example Bombay continued to be 39 minutes behind IST until 1955. But in those days, it is possible that no one noticed the difference, because nothing may have happened on time either in Bombay or in the rest of India.

And even after 1955, the whole of India has been 5½ hours off UTC and not a nice round number like most other countries.

Who are the members of the peculiar-time-difference club that we will join in April if the President’s idea is implemented?

* Afghanistan UTC+4:30
* Chatham Island (New Zealand) UTC+12:45
* Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia) UTC+6:30
* India UTC+5:30
* Iran UTC+3:30
* Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia) UTC+13:30
* Myanmar UTC+8:30
* Nepal UTC+9:15
* Norfolk Island (Australia) UTC+12:30

In addition, there is Newfoundland, a part of Canada’s poorest province stuck in the middle of the Atlantic (UTC-3:30) and the rather empty middle of Australia (Northern Territory UTC+9:30 and Southern Australia UTC+10:30).

It is not known whether the food habits of cows were the determining factor in these peculiarities.

There may be one or two little islands that may have been missed, but this is the membership of the club that we will be joining in April.

Even little Bhutan, which is strongly integrated with India, is in the mainstream, keeping its time at UTC+6 (along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh).

The only significant economies within the peculiar-time-difference club are India, Iran and Myanmar, and of course some weight has to be given to the middle of Australia.

But it seems clear that almost all the world’s countries maintain round-hour time differences.

If we wish to attract investment, engage in trade, and otherwise engage with the global economy (not only the Indian economy) there appears to be merit in staying in the mainstream.

There is also the problem of the signals given by making periodic and peculiar changes.

We changed the time once in 1996 and now we are changing it again.

That contributes to an image or quirkiness and oddity, which we could do without.

Even if something is bad, like the unpronounceable-to-foreigners name of our international airport, it is best that we do not change it every ten years but simply use the abbreviation only or a convenient shortened form such as Banda International Airport.

Compared to the alternatives . . .

Changing Sri Lanka’s time zone again within a decade by rejoining Indian Standard Time and deviating from the standard round-hour time differences will reinforce our international image as a vacillating and peculiar country.

We may miss a few business opportunities as a result.

But on the good side, we will be laying an important foundation for ultimate integration with the regional power.

There will be one less item to be debated in the course of accession to the Republic of India as the 29th state or as the 29th and 30th states of the Union.

Of course, this could be the thin end of the wedge: there is always the prospect of restoring the lunar-based work and school week that was officially imposed on Sri Lanka by the government of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, 1965-1970.

Or we could go to real solar times for different parts of the country, instead of IST, which is, after all, a modern contrivance.

What would be really interesting is, of course, coupling solar times with lunar-based work weeks.

Hours or “hora” which have 24 minutes, as in the days of the Kings . . . The possibilities are many.

Forget the problems of the ceasefire and paramilitaries and of inadequate investment and job creation. Time is the priority issue of our time. By definition, one could say.

-Rohan Samarajiva: samarajiva@lirne.net