India Debunked #6: Stretching Time
Years ago in Australia, I remember the frustration I felt when Indian colleagues would dial in late for meetings. Lateness happens everywhere in the world and isn’t exclusive to India. Couriers in the UK show up after the advised 4-hour window, or sometimes not at all. Workmen run late from earlier clients and turn up later than promised. I myself am always a little bit late rather than a little bit early to meet friends. But that isn’t all the time and generally the corporate world turned up on time, save for some transport-related lateness that affected everyone at the same time and only happened occasionally.
Whilst we tended to apologise profusely for running late in other countries, it appeared to me back then that lateness amongst my Indian colleagues seemed a very acceptable fact of life. When I moved here, I gained even more insight into how prevalent it is. Trains are regularly delayed up to 12 hours and I have suffered numerous lengthy delays when flying with Air India, the national carrier.
But why does this happen?
Friends have offered several reasons. I wrote in my previous post about nightmarish traffic in India, poor transport infrastructure and how it takes a long time to get places. I now leave the house 20 minutes earlier than my estimated travel time just to be on time. And even leaving early sometimes isn’t enough to counter excessive delays when it rains or when rash drivers clog up intersections and cause gridlocks.
This is compounded by the big distances people have to travel. I spent a year working full time in the corporate world here. It takes my colleagues anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to get to work on a good day depending on where they live. Delhi and the surrounding National Capital Region where everyone lives is HUGE! An eight-hour shift easily turns into a 10–12 hour day.
Lateness is also linked to perceived importance in some cases, especially functions and events. VIPs are often the last to arrive, so their entrance can be witnessed by all already gathered. The more important the VIP is, the later they will arrive. Even within lateness there are sometimes hierarchies.
An Indian friend once told me that people procrastinate and will not do anything immediately if they can drag it out until just before the deadline. He chalks it down to the massive population and the number of people who need jobs here. “Why do yourself and another person out of a job by being efficient when you can do it inefficiently and be employed forever?”, were his insights. I must admit this mentality has fed my own personal tendency to procrastinate to the point that I have become hugely inefficient at managing my own life. Especially given I have an inordinate amount of spare hours in a day.
Some say the Indian view of time is fluid and non-linear. This concept of time means that people believe things will happen when they happen, and will take the time they take. Therefore it doesn’t matter how late someone is to work, because the work will happen nevertheless, even if the person may even stay late to make sure it’s done. And this is how Indian Standard Time becomes Indian Stretchable Time.