How One Indian Man Used Big Data To Kickstart The Country’s Economy In The 1950s

by Drishti Ranjan
How One Indian Man Used Big Data To Kickstart The Country’s Economy In The 1950s

March 10, 2021

Fighting for their country to be free from foreign invaders was just a glimpse of all the tasks in store for Indians in the 19th century. Carrying forward an already lagging economy and debt-ridden citizens, coming up with creative solutions to get the Economy up and running was extremely crucial.

Amidst finding ways to self-govern and undoing all the damage the British Raj had caused, the economy took a backseat; until the 1950s when one Physics professor changed it all.

It is not difficult to see what is wrong with official statistics in India. There is gap between theory and practice. There is gap between the means and the end in the absence of any clearly perceived purpose.

- P. C. Mahalanobis, Statistics as Key Technology
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the father of Indian Statistics.

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis - The One Man Army

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, who eventually came to be known as the Father of Indian Statistics, was actually a Physics professor, but stumbled upon the field of statistics by accident. However, even after his chance discovery, upon entering this field, this man left no stone unturned in using his theoretical knowledge, into the best practical usage. He lead the path to having an enriched statistical legacy in India.

He is the brain behind establishing India’s Premiere Statistics research institute- the Indian Statistical Institute and even went on to become one of the earliest members of the Planning Commission.  He also introduced core statistical concepts still in use today—including randomization, multivariate analysis and fractile graphical analysis

P.C Mahalanobis is the brain behind establishing India’s Premiere Statistics research institute- the Indian Statistical Institute.

The Journey to Big Data

His journey with big data analysis started in 1920, the then Director of Zoological and Anthropological Survey of India gave him a dataset of about 300 people. It was which was instrumental in initiating his more than a decade-long research on anthropometric data, resulting in the theorizing of the “Mahalanobis distance”, his most notable research contribution.

 Not only this, but his initial working knowledge of statistics was used for a sample jute survey in Bengal, which later lead to the formation of National Sample Survey. He was a Cambridge Alumni, where he had also befriended the most renowned Indian Mathematician- Ramanujan.

We must proceed with electronic computers with all possible speed. Otherwise we will never be able to cope with the tremendous volume of primary information which is accumulating… I know that real planning would require the use of such computers.

- P. C. Mahalanobis
According to PC Mahalanobis, statistics refers to "Artithmetic of Human welfare"

Governance Using Big Data

According to him, statistics represents the ‘arithmetic of human welfare’. Yet, he argued that there was a gap between theory and practise. That gap exists between the means and the end, in the absence of a perceived purpose. His creations were cutting edge and receiving a lot of recognition as it was the first of its kind model to have governance be fuelled by data.

When he was a part of India’s first Planning Commission, he helped in coming up with scalable ideas of developmental growth of the Economy. His contribution in coming up with the second- Five Year Plan, exhibited his foresight and expertise really well. His usage of Mathematical models representing our entire economy, was based on every sector’s input and output.

His statistical learning and the process of “increasing the efficiency of human effort” were mostly developed on the wings of data, built on economics and anthropology, primarily. However, what superseded all other past good work is how he processed and incorporated the need to process a lot of data, and the urgency to do it faster.

The First Computer by India

Around that time, people who could calculate were employed to do the needful. But, in the contemporary world, the use of computers were rising, and he had his mind set on the fact that such technology could break the shackles of inefficiency and limits of human capability, when it comes to dealing with government employees. He was sure that the key to planning was hidden in technology.

The thought of owning a computer at that point in time I was a utopian one, But Mahalanobis left no stone unturned in trying to make it possible to either procure or build India’s first computer.

Even though this success was short lived (because it was an analogus computer and could only solve linear expressions up till 10 variables.) India pushed past the road block, and finally, acquired it’s first computer in 1956. Once the computers were acquired, a team at ISI dedicatedly started working on crunching data and creating optimal economic plans for the Planning Commission.

And that is how India used big data to come out of it’s economic crisis.


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