Time is money

Lack of punctuality in India is sometimes given a ‘spiritual’ spin by Western observers, but underneath this comic veneer is a deep transport and infrastructure crisis.

Indians’ lack of punctuality is so infamous that the acronym IST, which stands for Indian Standard Time, is often jokingly expanded as Indian Stretchable Time.

I experienced this version of IST for the first time in 2003. I had trekked the 50-kilometre distance from central Delhi to Noida for an interview at 10 am. I arrived 15 minutes early and started to compose myself for the meeting. I needn’t have bothered. My interviewer showed up five hours later.

I judged him for years after that, until recently when I got held up in traffic and reached a meeting two hours late. Mortified and red-faced as I entered the conference room, I noticed the only other people who had gathered were those with offices in the same building. And just like that I could view IST not as the indulgence of a polychronic culture but as a form of enforced helplessness.

Out of the hour and a quarter that I spend driving to work every day, at least 30 minutes are lost getting stuck in various bottlenecks. I could take the metro, but the station near my home does not connect directly to the main line into the city. And inexplicably, there are no skyways or even a connecting route between the two stations. Huffing and puffing between them, I would end up adding a further 35 minutes to my travel time. This means either lost productivity or working later to compensate.

Such wasted time is sometimes given a ‘spiritual’ spin by Western observers. The website Exactly What Is Time? states: ‘It is not unusual for trains in India to be several hours, or even a full day, late, without creating undue stress and turmoil’, adding that ‘such cultures, with thousands of years of history behind them, have such a long point of view that time at the scale of minutes, or even hours, becomes insignificant and inconsequential’. But these arguments – that for us time is an illusion, something stretching beyond reality, or that our concept of time is fluid and flexible, not bound by schedules or calendars – don’t hold good any more. They do not bode well for a country with ambitions of becoming one of the top three economies by 2030, but also one that is expected to return a $100-billion deficit for the next fiscal year.

We are well aware of time as a fixed concept. The age-old idea of the fumbling Indian who is always late is just a stereotype. We do not like being late. We do not like arriving late for meetings or missing out on crucial appointments. But here’s the thing: our infrastructure, which is far from user-friendly and not designed for seamless travel, doesn’t allow us to be on time. The 2019-20 budget allocates over $20 billion for road and rail infrastructure, and spending in this area has been rising. And yet this billions-of-dollars’-worth of infrastructure fails us every day.

On average, commuters in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata spend 1.5 hours more travelling each day than their fellow commuters in other Asian cities during peak hours, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Meanwhile, the number of vehicles on our roads – as a daily driver I am painfully aware of my own contribution – keeps rising, leading to further congestion and productivity losses.

The economic cost is enormous. Traffic congestion is costing us over $22 billion annually in major cities, to say nothing of the fuel being wasted by the stalled vehicles.

Being late in today’s world has a simple and direct consequence. Billions of dollars down the drain. Can we afford that?