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Podcast: The Timekeepers Of India

30/09/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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We can't separate the element of time from our lives. From daily schedules to long-term life goals, every plan is dictated by time. It is also one of those concepts, much like pi, that makes you wonder - did we actually invent time, or did time exist all along? Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once said in a lecture, "The conclusion of this lecture is that the universe has not existed forever. Rather, the universe, and time itself, had a beginning in the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago."

Whether or not time was present before the Big Bang, it exists in our universe - we have simply invented a way to measure it, which is through seconds, hours and years. So, the question that then arises is who sets the time? This episode of The Intersection takes you to the National Physics Laboratory in New Delhi, to find out just that.

India follows the Indian Standard Time (IST), which, we all know, is five and a half hours ahead of the Greenwich Median Time (GMT). However, the correct way to label it would be to call it five and a half hours ahead of the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which, unlike the GMT, is a time standard, not a time zone.

The National Physics Laboratory (NPL), set up in January 1947, holds the mandate in India to develop and maintain standards of measurement, including time. The NPL uses a bank of five caesium atomic clocks, which communicate with the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, precisely syncing time to the last second.

Simply put, the NPL maintains the IST, which the whole of India follows. However, this has caused several problems in the north-east, which often sees the sun set as early as 4 pm. The debate over whether a country as vast as India should follow the same time has significant political undertones - Assam's Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi last year demanded a separate time zone for north-eastern states, a decision that can only be taken by the central government.

The argument against separate time zones is also political. No one has said it outright, but like Dr. DP Sengupta, who is with the National Institute of Advance Studies, explains, just the notion of two time zones, may result in a political, west India versus east India debate. Dr. Sengupta has a different suggestion though. In 2007, he co-authored a paper, with Ila Gupta and Dilip R. Ahuja, which made the case for advancing IST by a half hour. This can actually help India save around 2.7-2.8 billion units of electricity every year, which, as Samanth points out, roughly translates to electricity that's enough to power Delhi for 110 days!

This debate may not be resolved easily, but one thing we can be sure of is that the NPL will always ensure the accuracy of time in India at any given second.

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