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(27-June, 2017 12:11 IST )

Role of P C Mahalanobis in Nation Building

National Statistics Day, 29th June

Role of P C Mahalanobis in Nation Building

*Ajay Kumar Gupta

In the words of Prof. Mahalanobis “Statistics must have a clearly defined purpose, one aspect of which is scientific advancement and the other human welfare and national development.” And in both the aspects his contribution has been immense. He is rightly referred to as the chief architect of Indian statistical system as well as father of statistical science in India. What started as a chance encounter with the journal Biometrica, turned into a passion so strong that it not only helped in building a strong statistical community in India but also lead to advancement of many theoretical works in the field.

Prof. Mahalanobis had to face opposition and challenges in his initial endeavours to establish statistics as a mainstream discipline of study and research. However, he persisted in his efforts and witnessed, contributed in no small measure by himself, change in perception of statistics in academic and public circles. We get a glimpse of this in the introductory part of his oft-quoted speech in the 1950 session of Indian Science Congress “Why Statistics?”:

“I discussed with a friend of mine, …..the possibility of having a separate section for Statistics. …. A little later he informed me that there was no chance of my proposal being accepted, and with a smile told me that some of his colleagues had remarked: “If statistics is to have a section, you may as well have a section for astrology”. Evidently, statistics and astrology were bracketed together in the mind of many of our scientists. The forecasting of future events is, of course, a common feature; and the basis was felt to be equally unscientific.................A great change has taken place in the climate of scientific and public opinion about statistics.”

Mahalanobis set up the Indian Statistical Institute as a learned society on 17 December 1931, which was registered in April 1932 as a non-profit distributing learned society under the Societies Registration Act. All or nearly all the statistical work done in India during the 1920s and until the mid-1930s was done single-handedly by Mahalanobis. The early statistical studies included analyses of data on stature of Anglo-Indians, meteorological data, rainfall data, data on soil conditions, etc. Some of the findings of these early studies were of great impact in the control of floods and development of agriculture. His analysis of anthropometric data led to the famous concept in Statistics known as “Mahalanobis Distance‟. During 1937-45, he introduced several innovative techniques and preferred to call them “experiments in statistical sampling‟. He started his work on sample surveys with estimation of area and yield of jute crop in Bengal in 1937. However, it was not easy for him to get these estimates accepted; controversy between him and the advocates of complete enumeration continued for over a decade. Ultimately he was able to demonstrate that estimates based on sample surveys were often more accurate than those based on complete enumeration, and that sample surveys could yield estimates with small margins of error within a short time and at a smaller cost than complete enumeration. Mahalanobis was always interested in the “promotion of scientific research and fruitful applications of research results to problems of social welfare‟. These applications of Statistics were not only in Agriculture where he pioneered crop cutting experiments, but also in Industry.

Mahalanobis's contributions to large scale sample surveys are among his most significant and lasting gifts to statistics.  Given the paucity of administrative data, and the possibility of biases creeping in, the strategy Mahalanobis envisaged in his notes to the Nehru cabinet on creating credible data sets were based on representative sample surveys, economist Ashok Rudra writes in his biography of Mahalanobis. To establish the credibility of surveys, he, who was a big proponent of cross-examination of data, invited some of the pioneers of statistics to review the work done at ISI. The first review committee of NSS included such intellectual giants as R.A. Fischer, M.H. Hansen, T. Kitagawa, A. Linder and F. Yates. Their opinion was not entirely uncritical but it noted in its report that in the matter of sample surveys, “those outside India must expect to have more to learn than to teach”.

The three notable contributions to the theory and practice of sample surveys by Mahalanobis are “pilot surveys, optimum survey design and Inter Penetrating Network of sub-samples technique (IPNS)” (cf. Lahiri, 1973). He always advocated Inter penetrating network of sub-samples (IPNS) theory both in conduct of large scale sample surveys as well as in working of Government administration where he did not approve of the fact that it was regulated by principle of authority. Mahalanobis was very much concerned with errors at various stages of data collection and analysis and insisted on cross examination of data. He applied IPNS for assessment and control of errors, especially non-sampling errors, in surveys. His technique of IPNS was appreciated by both the statisticians as well as politicians.  The concept of pilot surveys was a forerunner of sequential sampling developed by Abraham Wald, as acknowledged by Wald in his book.

In addition to introducing these concepts, Mahalanobis raised important and difficult philosophical questions on randomness and representativeness of a sample, which remain relevant and challenging even today. He was elected Chairman of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Statistical Sampling in 1947, and held this post until 1951. His tireless advocacy of the usefulness of sample surveys resulted in the final recommendation of this Sub-commission that sampling methods should be extended to all parts of the world. Mahalanobis received the Weldon Medal from Oxford University in 1944 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1945, for his fundamental contributions to Statistics, particularly in the area of large-scale sample surveys.

Besides being a reputed academician, Prof. Mahalanobis was a great administrator who stood up for what he believed in. When he was asked by a young colleague as to what was the most important quality for a great administrator he replied, “The capacity to be unpleasant when the occasion called for it.” We get another picture of him in W. Edwards Deming’s remark “He never permitted difference of opinion to impede the advancement of someone with an opposing view.”

One of the first tasks after India gained independence was to reassess the size and nature of the Indian economy and the man chosen to head the mission was statistical genius Prof. Mahalanobis. The committee included eminent scientists like Rao and Gadgil. The result was a voluminous report on National Income. Prof. Mahalanobis’ administrative qualities and the ability to convince people resulted in him playing a leading role in creating a statistical edifice for the country. Although remembered today largely as the architect of India’s five-year plan model, Mahanalobis, as the honorary statistical adviser to the cabinet, had a greater contribution in building a new statistical architecture for the country. He helped establish the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), the National Sample Survey (NSS) and the Annual Survey of Industries (ASI), all of which were run from ISI in the early years.

Prof. T.J. Rao, recipient of the National Award in Statistics 2016, highlighted the personality and achievements of Prof. Mahalanobis in the following words:

“Such was the man who combined his great intellect and vision with an unlimited capacity for work and brought reputation to the country by his achievements. No one in history could achieve anything great unless he was tough, could act boldly with faith in his convictions, and had the ability to argue....and get things done. Mahalanobis had all these traits in good measure....

......Statistical science was a virgin field and practically unknown in India before the twenties...It needed a pioneer and adventurer like him, with....courage and tenacity to fight all opposition.”

He was a truly visionary leader of his times and the path shown by him has not lost its relevance even today. It has only gained in importance.  With the advancement of study and research on statistics in ISI over the years, Prof. C.R. Rao has very rightly called ISI a mighty monument of Prof. Mahalanobis’ handicraft.


* The Author is Deputy Director General, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Govt. of India.

Views expressed in the article are author’s personal.

(Release ID :166909)
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