The great battle of the clocks
ON the morning of September 19, 2005, Western Railways discovered to its horror that someone had shifted their main computer clocks to 10 minutes in advance. The simple time-shift resulted in thousands of early bookings, many via the Internet. Many of these tickets will be resold for sums of money higher than the actual price, much like scrips in a stock exchange.
Kalpana Verma wrote in the Indian Express ("Mumbai Newsline", October 9, 2005) that the error in Western Railways was only noticed when someone who was issued a ticket at 8.03 a.m. had it re-issued for some reason immediately after the time was reset. This resulted in the same ticket printed at 7.56 a.m., which is not legal by the railway's own rules. "...it is not clear why the booking clerks opened early when they could have verified the time from other sources, even if the computers came on at 7.50 a.m. instead of 8.00 a.m.," writes Verma.
Not only can time be stretched indefinitely in India, now it can be stolen like money. Time in India is a turning wheel, and so our history keeps repeating the same classic tune with mild variations.
A hundred years ago Bombay, Madras and Calcutta operated on the basis of their own local standard times. Since Madras was more central to the country than Bombay or Calcutta, the railways were then operating on Madras time.
Lord Curzon felt that Madras could not be the standard, since it was five hours 21 minutes ahead of Greenwich, a rather ugly number to deal with. The next pleasantly round number of five hours and 30 minutes fell at the longitude 8230' E, which passes through the Allahbad observatory. This came to be known as Indian Standard Time (IST).
A devout Parsi and "virtual dictator" of Bombay, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta was a man committed to protect his "spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch", and campaigned against Curzon's institution of the IST in July of 1905. This proposed change placed Bombay 39 minutes ahead of its local time, as measured by the Colaba observatory. It was written of Mehta in the biography by Homi Mody that, "so far as he could make out, the only thing in favour of it was that it was convenient to the railway travelling public. But it was not suitable at all to the shipping and mercantile communities."
Due to his gigantic influence in the affairs of Bombay, some English servants of the Crown organised a strong caucus against Mehta. An important role was played by one Mr. Lovat Fraser, a journalist with the Times Of India, in "sending a misleading cable to the Aga Khan, and using his reply to influence his followers". It's another matter that political leaders of that time wrote glowing biographies of each other in their free time, and that the foreword in Modi's book on Mehta is by the Aga Khan himself.
It was during this Battle Of The Clocks, that another prominent figure of that time, M. Ali Jinnah, started his political career as the lawyer who successfully defended Mehta's election. Sir Mehta thus managed to prolong the installment of the new time, and thus Bombay remained on its local time until 1955. Pakistan also adopted its own standard time in 1951, half an hour behind India, under the aegis of their new Quaid-e-Azam.
An interesting drawback of using a universal time is that in the western world the sun rises late and sets a little late, by about an hour, which is why some nations use "daylight saving time", in spite of having multiple time zones. Pakistan tried doing this in 2002, but to no avail, and both India and Pakistan used this system during two of their countless, mutual wars.
The MTNL time inquiry (174) and the various clocks on the Internet from which IST is calculated, follow the lead of Universal Co-ordinated Time (UTC). This is given out by correcting the mean average of several Cesium atomic clocks (also called IAT, International Atomic Time), spread over the globe, so that the sun and the seasons can appear at a foreseen regularity. Even the IAT needs to be regularly corrected, but at scales so infinitesimal that they make no difference to the average railway commuter or static person. If they weren't corrected though, local noon time would soon float away from the point of day when the sun is directly overhead.
One would have thought, given what the Empire had everyone believe, that it never sets.
Rohit Gupta is a Bombay-based writer. E-mail him at email@example.com
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