The quality of a democracy is measured by its statistics. The Government needs reliable numbers of people; their livelihoods, struggles and triumphs. In a democracy, where decisions ought to be based on evidence, the collection of good data is a particular boon.
Today, virtually any report on the details and numbers – from population to poverty and household expenditure – invariably turns to the National Sample Survey. A juggernaut of statistical ambition that was started in 1950, under the guidance of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis.
On Mahalanobis’s Sample Surveys, the famed statistician of the United States, W.E. Deming, wrote:
No country, developed, under-developed or over-developed, has such a wealth of information about its people as India.
P.C. Mahalanobis, or ‘the professor’ (as he self-styled himself) is considered the architect of Indian statistics; founder of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). He is the reason that numbers coming from India have been taken seriously as far back as 1930.
Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai, as well as mathematicians and statisticians from around the world – like S. Ramanujan, Simon Kuznets and Michael Kalecki and Nicholas Kaldor placed confidence in his ability.
As President Pranab Mukherjee said on the 114th birth anniversary of the professor:
During the period of the Cold War, Professor Mahalanobis was perhaps the only Indian scientist who was equally welcome in the USA and USSR as well as in China and Japan.
The ISI was a place where the men of numbers would meet – and work with Mahalanobis on how planning could shape an economy. One anecdote from 1956 has the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visiting the ISI. Students made it a point to flash their manually-operated Facit desk calculators (now antiques) on Zhou’s classroom visits. But it was Mahalanobis who captured the premier’s attention; so much that he refused to leave his meeting with the Indian statistician – delaying his own schedule. He took Mahalanobis by both hands before he left, and got him to promise that the countries would exchange expertise and experts.
His contribution to the field of statistics and anthropometry is immense; the Mahalanobis Distance and the Feldman-Mahalanobis Model of Development Planning are two concepts that bear his name. He introduced the concept of pilot surveys and adapted random sampling methods that gave him accurate data on everything from tea consumption habits to crop acreage. His expertise on the use of sample surveying techniques was sought after by statisticians from across the world.
But if his name was to be stamped on to anything, it would be the five-year-plan models of development that he co-designed with Jawaharlal Nehru following independence, in particular, the second one (1956-1961) – that emphasised heavy industry and the birth of Indian nuclear power. Above all else, Mahalanobis believed that statistics be wielded with purpose.
Statistics must have a clearly defined purpose, one aspect of which is scientific advance and the other, human welfare and national development.
It was advancing this purpose that took him to numbers, for he started out as a physicist. He went to London to study physics at University College. But while on a day trip to Cambridge, he missed his train back. It turned out to be a useful serendipity, for his friends encouraged him to apply to Cambridge. He got in, to his great delight.
There, he met the Indian mathematician prodigy, Srinivas Ramanujan. As an anecdote in Robert Kanigel’s biography goes, Mahalanobis formed a friendship with Ramanujan. One cold winter day in 1914, he found the young man from Tamil Nadu shivering under several layers of clothes.
“Are you warm at night?” he asked. The reply was “No.” Mahalanobis saw that Ramanujan’s bed was perfectly made with its covers pulled up. He realised that Ramanujan had yet to grasp the intricacies of British bedding – and showed him how he could pull back the sheets to form a hollow.
At Cambridge, the two formed a clique – trading mathematical puzzles over breakfast and discussing mathematics and philosophy on long walks. The influence of Ramanujan certainly fuelled Mahalanobis’s interest in Maths, but it was a Cambridge journal called “Biometrika”, that opened his eyes to the possibilities of statistics. He bought every copy he could find and read them on the long ship journey back to India.
He returned to India to teach at Presidency College in his hometown of Calcutta. In this phase of his life, he self-taught himself statistics. Sometimes humbled by the knowledge of trained statisticians, he felt boosted by the attention his work soon received from around the world. He had a greater footprint among Western scholarship than any other statistician and this emboldened him.
A meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1940 dragged on into the late hours of the night. This meeting saw the economic ideas of Nehru and Mahalanobis converge. In 1949, he was appointed the Honorary Statistical Advisor of independent India; with which he established the Directorate of the National Sample Survey.
In 1951, the ISI was commissioned with the twin objectives of “solving the problem of unemployment in 10 years” and “increasing national income at a reasonably rapid rate.”
While he took influence from the Soviet example of planning, particularly from its economist G.A. Feldman; his approach was not ideologically driven. He saw instead a quantitative way of ensuring production could match the supply required from and by various other sectors.
Mahalanobis died on June 28, 1972; a day before his 79th birthday. He did not live to see the boom in Indian economic growth. But his sample surveys continue to influence Indian policymakers, as well as economists worldwide. Every ten years, statisticians of the National Sample Survey Organization embark on ever more ambitious surveys of the Indian people. From journalists to academia, these numbers form the basis of countless arguments and debates.
In Mahalanobis’ vision, accurate numbers were only useful if they could help take us forward, one planned step at a time. In this age of Big Data, one can only imagine what the ‘professor’ would have done with data in the information era.
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