MAHALANOBIS – THE ARCHITECT OF STATISTICAL SCIENCE IN INDIA
The Indian Statistical Institute, or ISI holds a pride of place today, amongst academic Institution in India, with its scientists being honoured every year by National and International Honours. It was founded in 1931, in Kolkata, declared Institute of National Importance by an Act of the Parliament in 1959, and has expanded to include 4 centres at Delhi, Bangalore, Tezpur and Chennai. The founding father of this unique institution imparting training and education in Statistics, Mathematics, Social and Basic Sciences, was Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, an elected Fellow of Royal Society. He was one of the greatest applied statisticians to whom, statistics was to be used for better understanding of scientific data, and for decision-making. Innovation, systematization, and very concrete applications are the hallmarks of his contributions to science and planning for national development. His birthday is commemorated as National Statistics Day. He was one of the architects of National Policy in those early years by dint of his appointment in the planning commission. The ISI has served as a model even for some American Institutions in the 20th century. Prof. Partha P. Majumder, Emeritus Professor at the same Institute was speaking on the subject on Saturday, May 7, 2022, in a webinar entitled “Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, FRS: An Architect of Statistical Science and of our National Development”, the 14th lecture under the series “Institution Building & Nurturing Initiatives in Independent India” organized by the Society for Promotion of Science & Technology in India (SPSTI) in association with Chandigarh Chapters of the science academies – NASI, INSA, INYAS, and PEC, to celebrate Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsava.
The distinguished speaker, who is a fellow of all three Indian Academies of Science, and has been the founder Director of National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani, WB, has contributed to genetics and genomic diseases and has represented India on several international fora. He has also had the distinction of being President of Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore earlier. Prof. Majumder said that Mahalanobis was a firm believer that scientific and rational view lay the foundation of modern age. Mahalanobis’ encounter with statistics was by chance;Prof. Macaulay during his visit to Cambridge, drew his attention to ‘Biometrika’ a journal for the statistical study of biological problems. Thus began his journey with statistics. He went on to deal with many real life problem, once back in Kolkata, and eventually formulated the famous D2, Mahalanobis distance. His contributions are lasting gifts to statistics with large scale sample surveys, pilot surveys and method of interpenetrating network of subsamples.
Mahalanobis believed statistics can be used for national development. He was appointed Chairman of National Income Committee in 1949 and took unconventional approaches of planning. The Indian Statistical Institute, which he had set up, took the role of think tank for Planning Commission. He was a member of Planning Commission and took prominent part in the first three 5-years’ plans. He played pivotal role in establishing Heavy industry in accelerated way even though agriculture and food were the focus at that time. Later he brought computing to the country in a big way, the results of which are visible.
Mahalanobis met Tagore in 1910, joined Vishwa Bharati in 1920 as its first ever secretary, drafted its constitution and held the position till 1929. He was also a meteorologist at the Alipore meteorological observatory. He was a Professor of Physics at Presidency College, 1922 to 1948. Throughout 1950s, he was associated with the Planning Commission and worked closely with Pt. Nehru and his other scientific advisors such as Homi Bhabha, S. S. Bhatnagar and Megh Nad Saha. Mahalanobis had the foresight to what the Nation Needed.
Those present at the session include Prof. Ram Ramaswamy, the Guest of honour, also an ex-President of the IASc, Profs. K. P. Singh and N. G. Prasad from IISER Mohali and senior members of SPSTI.