INDIAN STATISTICAL INSTITUTE - A TRADITION

Prof. S.B. Rao*

    Research in the theory and applications of statistics as a new scientific discipline began in India in the early twenties through the pioneering initiative and efforts of the late Professor P.C. Mahalanobis who has rightly been described as a great visionary. A small group of young scientists was picked up by him for the purpose in the Department of Physics, Presidency College, Calcutta, where he used to teach. This group formed the nucleus of a laboratory which later came to be known as the Statistical Laboratory.

    In the early thirties, realising the necessity for a concerted effort for the advancement of theoretical and applied statistics in India, Professor Mahalanobis together with Professor P.N. Banerjee and Professor N.R. Sen, both of Calcutta University, convened a meeting on December 17, 1931 to consider various steps for setting up an association for the advancement of statistics in the country.

    It was unanimously resolved to set up the Indian Statistical Institute with Sir R.N. Mookerjee as President and Professor P.C. Mahalanobis as Honorary Secretary. The Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) was registered as a non-government and non-profit distributing learned society on April 28, 1932. The total expenditure in the first year was a meagre Rs. 238.00 and the number of workers was only two or three.

    From such a modest beginning, the Institute grew under the able leadership of Professor Mahalanobis into an all-India organisation which is now functioning under the aegis of the Department of Statistics, Ministry of Planning & Programme Implementation, Government of India with 1600 workers including about 500 scientific personnel and an annual expenditure of about Rs. 42 crore. The Institute has its headquarters in Calcutta and two other Centres in Delhi and Bangalore and a branch at Giridih in Bihar. In addition, it has a network of service units of Statistical Quality Control(SQC) and Operations Research (OR) Division at Baroda, Mumbai, Pune, Coimbatore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Calcutta, Delhi and Bangalore.
 

Evolution

    From the very beginning, Prof. Mahalanobis and his associates worked with zeal and enthusiasm for development of statistical theory and methods and in promoting research and practical applications in different areas of natural and social sciences. Sankhya -the Indian journal of statistics and the official organ of the Institute started publishing from 1933 under the editorship of Prof. P.C. Mahalanobis and is still considered as a prestigious and internationally acclaimed journal in statistics. With a history of about 70 years of meaningful work as a centre of excellence, ISI is considered as one of the world’s leading organisations for promoting statistics as a key technology for all scientific endeavours. The objects of the Institute include study and dissemination of knowledge of statistics, research and development of statistical theories and methods for their use in various fields of natural and social sciences as well as collection and analysis of information, investigations, undertaking projects and operational research for the purpose of planning and improvement of efficiency of management and productions.

    The enactment of the "Indian Statistical Institute Act 1959" (the bill was piloted by the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru) by Parliament recognised it as an Institute of National Importance and empowered ISI to confer degrees and diplomas in Statistics. Thus, the Bachelor of Statistics (Hons), Master of Statistics and Post-graduate diploma in Computer Science courses were started from 1960. The Institute was also empowered to award Ph.D and D.Sc. degrees from the same year. Later on, courses leading to Master of Technology degree were started in Computer Science and in Quality, Reliability and Operations Research which also received formal recognition from the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

    In recognition of the excellent research work done by the scientists of the Institute in several areas related to statistics, the section 4 of the Indian Statistical Institute Act of 1959 was amended by Parliament in September 1995 to empower the Institute to award degrees and diplomas not only in statistics but also in mathematics, quantitative economics, computer science and other such subjects related to statistics as may be determined by the Institute from time to time. Subsequently, a Master of Science programme in Quantitative Economics was also introduced.
 

Contributions

    The role and importance of the ISI in conducting and promoting the teaching of statistics has been appreciated by international bodies as well. In 1950, the ISI jointly, with the International Statistical Institute, had set up the International Statistical Education Centre under the auspices of UNESCO and the Government of India to impart training in Theoretical and Applied Statistics to participants from countries of the Middle East, South and South-East Asia, the Far East and Commonwealth countries of Africa.

    The fundamental contributions made by ISI include, among others, Mahalanobis Distance, Sample Surveys, Multivariate Analysis, Design of Experiments and Inference. The Institute played a pivotal role in establishing the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), Central and State Statistical Bureaus and in creating an international understanding for disseminating knowledge of quality, statistics and applications. Its recent important contributions include small area statistics, environmental statistics, and Bayesian Analysis.

    The ISI also played a pioneering role in starting the Statistical Quality Control (SQC) movement in India by organising a visit by Professor W.A. Shewhart, the father of SQC, to India in 1948 and later by inviting other experts like Prof. W.E. Deming, Dr. J.M. Juran, Prof. L.H.C. Tippet, Prof. E.R. Ott and Prof. G. Taguchi for the same purpose. SQC promotional work was gradually extended to all over the industrial centres in India under a comprehensive programme covering education and training, applied research and consultancy services.

    Over the years, the SQC and OR Divisions have grown to the size of having ten operating units all over the country and has served in promoting, educating, training and technical guidance in Total Quality Management Methodology, Quality Assurance Systems for the benefit of the Indian manufacturing and service industry over the decades and continuing its quality service to the industry.

    Since its inception the Institute has recognised the need for development and use of accurate and fast computing equipment for the processing and analysis of data. In 1953, a small analog computer was designed and built in the Institute. In 1956, the Institute acquired a HEC-2M machine from the U.K., which was the first digital computer in India. Since 1956 till the mid-sixties, the Institute had been serving as a de facto national computer centre for the country. In the early sixties the Indstitute, in collaboration with the Jadavpur University, undertook the design, development and fabrication of a fully transistorised digital computer, called ISIJU-1 which was commissioned in 1966. The Institute has been maintaining its tradition of high quality research and development in the field of computer science. Keeping pace with the global advances in computer technology, the activities of the Institute in the field of computer science gathered a tremendous momentum in the late seventies, resulting in diversification of research in different areas.

    In recognition of its contributions in the field of computer science, the Government of India in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme established one of the five national Nodal Centres for Knowledge-Based Computing Systems at the ISI in 1988. Also, a new division emphasises research in theory and application of computer science, patter recognition, image processing, artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, computer vision, natural language processing, documentation analysis and remote sensing.

    The ISI is nationally and internationally recognised as a centre of excellence both for its contribution to theoretical statistics, mathematics, economics, computer science and other inter-disciplinary research areas in natural and social sciences as well as for their applications in the related areas. With the new millenium approaching,the ISI is ready to accept the new challenges ahead .

*Director, Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta