Today's Editorial

21 June 2017

Remembering PCM



Source: By Ashit Baran Aich: The Statesman



The country will observe National Statistics Day on June 29, the 125th birth anniversary of Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the great physicist turned-statistician and a master planner who was popularly known as PCM.


Born in Calcutta on June 29, 1893, PCM will be remembered as the protagonist of India’s Second Five-Year Plan, the founder of Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), and a renowned statistician. He was a member of the Planning Commission from 1955 to1967. Under his leadership, the ISI prepared the draft of the Second Five-Year Plan, mobilising its entire human and physical resources.


In the words of Prof G Kallianpur, a former Director of ISI: “If in the course of the last few decades, India has been transformed from a country with virtually no industrial base into one ranking among the first ten countries of the world with the largest industrial output, some measure of credit belongs to Professor Mahalanobis and the statistical institution created by him”. As we all know, the idea of a centralised Planning Commission was mooted originally by Subhas Chandra Bose under the persuasion of Meghnad Saha in 1938 when Bose was the Congress president. Jawaharlal Nehru was chosen as the Chairman of the Commission.


After Independence, the Commission was formally established on 15 March 1950. However, the authority for the creation of the Planning Commission was not derived from the Constitution or Statutes. It functioned only as an arm of the Central Government. Possibly due to this lacuna in its formation and also to give more space to the Finance Commission, the Planning Commission was replaced on 1 January 2015, by the National Institution for Transforming India, also known as NITI Aayog, as an evolutionary process 65 years after its creation. With this, a very glorious period of India’s struggle for growth has ended during which time; the ISI under the leadership of PCM had played a significant role.


A man of great originality, Mahalanobis will be remembered mainly for his contribution to statistical theory and practice and for the establishment of the Indian Statistical Institute in 1931; the Department of Statistics of Calcutta University in 1941; and the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 1950. The ISI was started in 1931 from a room in the Baker Laboratory building of Presidency College. PCM had always emphasised that the real utility of statistics lies in its applications with all possible help from mathematics. Many breakthroughs had been achieved by the ISI even when it did not have its own campus.


The permanent campus at Baranagar on the outskirts of Kolkata came into existence only after independence with centres at other places of India, including New Delhi. The ISI was subsequently awarded the status of an Institute of National Importance by the Government of India. The NSSO, initially established as a division of ISI, soon became an integral part of the Ministry of Planning. It is a unique agency in the world in so far as the collection and analysis of socioeconomic and demographic data are concerned covering the entire country in a continual and routine manner reaching down to the grass-root level. The data is used by the Government for policy decisions.


The Department of Statistics of Calcutta University makes the university probably the second in the world, after the University of London, to start Statistics as an academic discipline, offering the post-graduate degree. To introduce this new subject, Mahalanobis had to overcome many hurdles, including the scarcity of text-books and journals on Statistics. The Department of Statistics in Presidency College, which offered the Honours course, came into being in 1944, again thanks to the pioneering initiative and efforts of Mahalanobis. Statistics as a formal academic discipline was introduced in other universities of the world subsequently.


For example, an independent Statistics Department of the University of California, Berkeley, USA came into existence in 1955 though the Statistical Laboratory at that University had been functioning since 1938. The first such department was established in China’s Beijing University in 1956. However, the Russian school of probability had existed since the nineteenth century given the tradition of treating the probability calculus as an integral part of mathematical training. Thus, India has remained in the forefront of teaching, learning and dissemination of knowledge of statistics.


As is well known, PCM’s life was very profoundly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore. In the words of PCM: “The poet used to take a keen interest in our statistical work from the very beginning, and visited the Statistical Laboratory in Presidency College on many occasions”. It is heartening to note that the following lines were written by the poet for Sankhya (Vol. 2, 1935), the international journal of Statistics of ISI which was edited by PCM. These lines amply describe the poet’s immense understanding of the role of mathematics, and for that matter of statistics, as a basis of science ~ the enchantment of rhythm is obviously felt in music, the rhythm of which is inherent in the notes and their grouping.


It is the magic of mathematics, this rhythm which is in the heart of all creation, which moves in the atom and in its different measures fashions gold and lead, the rose and thorn, the sun and the planets, the variety and vicissitudes of man's history. These are the dance-steps of numbers in the arena of time and space, which weave the maya of appearance, the incessant flow of changes that ever is and is not. What we know as intellectual truth, is that also not a perfect rhythm of the relationship of facts that produce a sense of convincingness to a person who somehow feels that he knows the truth? We believe any fact to be true because of a harmony, a rhythm in reason, the process of which is analysable by the logic of mathematics.

In PCM’s time, the ISI was a wonderful meeting place of great minds that included Nobel Laureates, mathematicians, statisticians, economists as well as persons from literary fields. The visitors included Chou-en-Lai, Ho Chi Minh, and even Che Guevara. Professor CR Rao, former Director of ISI and a long-time associate of PCM, once described statistics as a key technology to fight hunger and deprivation. Leaders of the newly liberated countries used to gather here to reflect on this new technology and also to see how India was trying to address its own problems. The deliberations and debates that ensued had ultimately enriched the intellectual as well as social life of Kolkata thereby reinforcing its epithet ~ “The Cultural Capital of India”.