Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis: India’s first Big Data man
Public use of statistics started in India with Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, whom Google has paid homage with a doodle on his 125th birth anniversary.
PCM, as he was popularly called, set up the prestigious Indian Statistical Institute.
A sample survey may look like an easy and simple statistical method to us today but when Mahalanobis introduced it in India in the 1930s, it was nothing short of a grand innovation. This was evident from his meeting with Chinese premier Zhou En Lai in 1956. This is how an ET blog from last year describes it: “Zhou was frustrated by his country’s inability to produce useable data on time. China at the time collected data in every single economic unit, which generated more data than they could process. By contrast, India, under Mahalanobis, had opted to use carefully designed random samples of the economic units to infer what was going on for the entire population, which was cheaper and quicker.”
“The National Sample Survey (NSS), when launched by the NSSO in 1949, was the most ambitious household survey in the world, covering over 1,800 villages and over 100,000 households across India. The methods used by the NSS became the standard for household surveys the world over,” it says.
Mahalanobis introduced the concept of pilot surveys and advocated the usefulness of sampling methods. Early surveys began between 1937 and 1944 and included topics such as consumer expenditure, tea-drinking habits, public opinion, crop acreage and plant disease.
Mahalanobis pursued his education at Brahmo Boys school in Calcutta and later joined Presidency College in the same city. Following this, he went for higher studies to University of London. And that’s where he fell in love with statistics.
In 1915, when Mahalanobis’s ship from England to India was delayed, he spent most of the time in the library of King’s College, Cambridge, where he found Biometrika, a leading book on theoretical statistics of the time. He bought nine volumes of the book to take them home. A physics student’s sudden interest led to India’s rise in the field of statistics. By 1931, he had set up the ISI started its journey in 1931 as a registered society within this statistical laboratory.
Mahalanobis held several national and international portfolios. He served as the chairman of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Sampling from 1947 to 1951 and was appointed the honorary statistical adviser to the Government of India in 1949. For his pioneering work, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s highest honours, by the Indian government in 1968. The eminent scientist breathed his last on June 28, 1972, just a day ahead of his 79th birthday.