For the most people, he is best known as the architect of Independent India’s industrialisation strategy that was embodied in the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61). An Indian scientist and most importantly, an Applied Statistician, he is best known for the Mahalanobis distance, a statistical measure.
Graduating in physics in 1912 from the Presidency College, Kolkata and later at Cambridge, this pioneering statistician was born on June 29,1893. Inspired by ‘Biometrika’ and mentored by Acharya Brajendra Nath Seal, he started his statistical work. Initially, he worked on analyzing University exam results, anthropometric measurements on Anglo-Indians of Kolkata and some meteorological problems. He also worked as a meteorologist for some time. In 1924, when he was working on the probable error of results of agricultural experiments, he met Ronald Fisher, with whom he established a life-long friendship. He also worked on schemes to prevent floods.
His most important contributions are related to large scale sample surveys. He introduced the concept of now popular—pilot surveys and advocated the usefulness of sampling methods. His name is also associated with the scale-free multivariate distance measure, the Mahalanobis distance. He founded the Indian Statistical Institute on 17 December, 1931. In later life, he contributed prominently to newly independent India’s five-year plans starting from the second five-year plan (1956-61). His variant of Wassily LeontiePs neo Marxist Input-Output model, the Mahalanobis model was employed in the Second Five Year Plan, which worked towards rapid industrialisation of India. With other colleagues at his institute, he played a key role in the development of a statistical infrastructure in the country. He elaborated his vision for India’s industrialisation strategy in his celebrated paper, “The Operational Research Approach to Planning in India”. This was published hi Sankhya, the Indian Journal of Statistics hi 1955.
Three distinct elements of this strategy influenced the course of industrialisation in India. Self-reliance, emphasis on basic and heavy machines—building industries to maximise long-term growth and finally, the dominant role of the public sector in basic and heavy industries. This was sought to be implemented through centralised investment planning in the economy. But, unfortunately, India has struggled with his model for industrialisation. Suresh D Tendulkar, a Professor of Economics at the Delhi School of Economics says that being primarily a scientist and not a blind-folded ideologue, Mahalanobis would have examined the situation. His industrial policies never meant that India earn the dubious distinction of hosting the largest number of the world’s poor and illiterate mass of people. India continues to be at the lowest end in terms of GDR per capita and human development index. It boasts of creating the second largest stock of technically trained manpower which is not gainfully absorbed. Prof Tendulkar says that India went wrong in each of the three elements of his strategy. Firstly, we never had competitive domestic markets and aggressive participation in international trade. Moreover, domestic market, with initially low-level and later policies, induced slow growth in per capita real income and could not have absorbed projected capacities in basic and heavy machine-building industries. Finally, political and bureaucratic interference in public-sector enterprises have converted them into white elephants, draining the exchequer.
Consequently, going by Mahalanobis’s earlier thought processes, Prof Tendulkar feels that he would have supported the economic reforms of 1991. In his original formulation, Mahalanobis stressed that a model was merely a scaffold to be discarded as soon as the purpose was achieved. India’s greatest failing seems to be that it is still continuing with the Five-year Plans.
Undoubtedly, his intentions were brilliant but where we have failed is the execution of plans. The area where Mahalanobis made distinguished contribution is statistics. Thanks to his. National Sample Surveys and Central Statistical Organisation, India boasts of a unique database for tracking socio-economic changes and a sound statistical system.