Saturday Magazine
Man who changed the time
by Brian Tissera

We had a special person visiting us last week: none other than the former Director of Energy Planning, Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Energy, G. B. Aelred Fernando, the man who changed the time of this country.

I met him again at his home on Sunday morning for a chat. Relaxing in his easy chair, he recalled his career in the public service. "Don’t change it," he emphasised. This "change" that he referred to is the government’s moves to put back the clock by half an hour and revert to the original standard time of being five-and-a-half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

In May 1996, the then government advanced the clock by an hour and by October that year brought it back by half an hour to put Sri Lanka six hours ahead of GMT. Since then, the people have got accustomed to it.

Two reasons

Fernando said there are two good reasons why there should not be a change. "By differing from GMT by the multiple of one hour, we have joined a club of nearly 190 countries which follow the same pattern, that is the number of minutes and seconds is identical and only the hour differs," he said.

This is advantageous in global communications. Only five or six countries in the world have the odd half an hour plus or minus GMT. The world itself is divided into time zones that differ in multiples of one hour and countries normally adopt the time in the zone that they fall into. Some countries fix their standard time one hour ahead of the time in the zone in order to benefit from daylight savings, he said.

London, Paris and Madrid fall within the same time zone, but the time in Paris and Madrid is an hour ahead of London because European Standard Time is an hour ahead of GMT. Countries in the former Soviet Union have fixed their time an hour ahead of their zonal time.

Mumbai falls into the zonal time of five hours ahead of GMT while Kolkotta is in the GMT plus six hour zone, but India has decided to have its standard time at GMT plus five and a half hours. This is probably due to cultural and historical reasons since the well known historical astronomical observatory, Janthar Manthar in Jaipur is located in the meridian, five and a half hours ahead of GMT.

"The advantage of communicating with countries that have the same time past the hour is obvious and needs no elaboration. We presently have this advantage with most countries of the world," Fernando said.

Fernando’s second reason for retaining the present time is that we enjoy daylight saving as a result of being an hour ahead of the time zone we belong to. "The saving in electricity consumption is not the only benefit, people enjoy additional daylight in the evening for a variety of activities, compared to what they lose in the mornings. In most cases they lose this time oversleeping," he said.

Children have to get up early to go to school due to other reasons, he said. "School children need not leave their homes before 7 a.m. if they are expected to reside within two miles of their school. The school authorities should examine the reasons for complaints instead of putting the blame on the advancing of standard timem," Fernando said. In fact, school times were adjusted after the standard time was changed.

The saving in electricity consumption when the clock is put forward is because people go to bed earlier. "However," Fernando pointed out, "these days there are popular TV programmes and political ‘talk shop’ programmes that keep people tuned into the TV till very late in the night, sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning. The consumption of electricity due to late TV shows counter the daylight savings."

Fernando had a plan for this. "It must be remembered that the electricity tariff is subsidised and unwanted household electricity consumption is billed to public funds. Popular TV programmes including news could conclude by 10 p.m. It would be useful to consider introducing an unsubsidised domestic electricity tariff between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. and introduce the time of day tariffs, in order to encourage people to retire to bed at normal times or alternatively be prepared to pay the additional cost," he said.

How did the process of changing the time start, I asked Fernando. His reply was interesting, revealing the nature of the State bureaucracy and the might of majority decisions.

Changing the time, 1982-4

In March 1982, Walter Rupasinghe from Kotte, on his return from a visit to Malaysia and Singapore made a request to then President J. R. Jayawardane to consider advancing the time in Sri Lanka to benefit from daylight savings. Malaysia and Singapore had done this successfully to reduce pressure on electricity consumption. The President, who was also the Minister of Power and Energy, asked the Ceylon Electricity Board to prepare a report.

"The CEB report was forwarded to me in my capacity as Director, Energy Planning and I suggested that the time be advanced by half an hour to make it a multiple of one hour," Fernando said.

This proposal was forwarded to the Committee of Development Secretaries (DSC). The DSC rejected the proposal stating that school children will be greatly inconvenienced as they already have to get up very early.

The newspapers reported that the DSC had rejected a very good proposal. On seeing these reports, Arthur C. Clarke had written to President Jayawardane that the proposal was a very good one and that he himself had advocated it 20 years ago in order to get rid of the "odd half hour".

At the next cabinet meeting it was agreed to put forward the clock by half an hour and the DSC was directed to implement it. At the DSC meeting held on 7th February 1984, chaired by G. V. P. Samarasinghe, he stated that the cabinet had directed the DSC to implement the proposal but a timeframe had not been given. Samarasinghe had said "we will implement it when we want" and a committee was appointed to submit a detailed report to the DSC. The proposal then died a natural death.

Changing the time, 1992-6

Eight years later, the proposal was submitted again to the cabinet by the then Acting Minister of Power and Energy, Sarathchandra Rajakaruna. The cabinet approved the proposal and a committee of officials, chaired by the secretary to the Cabinet was appointed to examine the matter and report back. That was in June 1992. Like before, there was no follow up action.

The project was subsequently revived suddenly and swiftly. "On May 24, 1996 I was summoned by the Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Energy, Jaliya Medagama to meet the Minister of Power and Energy Anuruddha Ratwatte in his office in Parliament and draft the announcement to advance Sri Lanka’s time that night itself," Fernando said.

The country was facing a grave electricity crisis and the minister wanted to advance the clock by an hour. "I drafted the announcement at 2 p.m. and on my return to office after lunch around 3 p.m. I heard the announcement being made over the car radio by SLBC," he said.

There were many objections, judging from letters to the editor in newspapers and a committee of officials prepared a report on the advancing of time.

On the basis of the report, the government put back the time by half an hour by fixing Sri Lanka standard time at six hours ahead of GMT. Complaints gradually reduced and people got used to the new time.

Majority vs. Minority

Fernando had something to learn through the whole process. "During the course of changing the time I learnt that going by the choice of the majority, even though that is democratic, is not correct. The rights of the minority have to be safeguarded as well," he said.

"If we go by what the majority says, then the education department in this country might as well be administered by failed candidates at the GCE O’Level as they are the majority," he quipped.

"The problems in our country have been caused largely by accepting the views of the majority and ignoring the rights of the minority. Politicians try to take control of everything. It we had retained the senate, the rights of the minorities could have been safeguarded just as in the United Kingdom and India. This is the true practice of democracy."

"We are now looking at India to implement a suitable form of governance. In addition tofederalism we also need to copy the concept of a second chamber, independent civil service, independent judicial service and elections commission and not allow politicians to take all power into their hands," he said.

"The civil service must be strong and independent and be able to safeguard the values of the nation, without being subject to politicians. This where we have gone wrong and we must correct ourselves," Fernando said.


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