Modern Indian History-Events and Personalities

Remembering P C Mahalanobis


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 3- Achievements of Indians

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, India’s ‘Plan Man’ and the architect of the country’s statistical system is more relevant now in times of Covid pandemic when we grapple with the lack of data.

Analysing 1944 Bengal famine

  • He conducted a large-scale sample survey of Bengal’s famine between July 1944 and February 1945.
  • Sample survey helped in causal analysis and to assess the extent of the disaster and an estimate of the number of people affected.

Relevance today

  • Bengal’s famine survey reminds us that we need estimates of the millions who will lose jobs or livelihoods in today’s pandemic.
  • The extent of feasibility, success and problem of online access also needs to be properly estimated in this new dawn.
  • Mahalanobis is perhaps more relevant today when the accuracy of different sorts of data is under the scanner.
  • Mahalanobis envisaged large-scale sample surveys as statistical engineering rather than pure theory of sampling.
  • He was instrumental in establishing the National Sample Survey (NSS) in 1950 and the Central Statistical Organization in 1951.

Data accuracy

  • Mahalanobis was very careful about data accuracy in his surveys.
  • In Kautilya’s Arthashastra, there is mention of the need for cross-checking by an independent set of agents for data collection.
  • This, according to Mahalanobis, was the “striking feature in the Arthashastra”.
  • This might have prompted him to have an independent supervisory staff during the conduct of field operations by the NSS.
  • His initial training in Physics might have made him conscious about errors in measurement and observation.
  • The desire to have built-in cross-checks and to get an estimate of errors in sampling led him to introduce the Inter-Penetrating Network of Subsamples.
  • The network is considered as the curtain-raiser for re-sampling procedures like Bootstrap.
  • Bootstrap is a revolutionary concept of statistics.

Difficulties in conducting surveys

  • Even Mahalanobis could have faced hardship had he wished to conduct surveys now.
  • First, even in pre-COVID-19 India, it’s widely reported that surveyors were facing tremendous resistance from people due to some sociopolitical reasons.
  • Pronab Sen, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic Statistics, and former Chief Statistician, expressed his concern that the survey system is already in “deep trouble”.
  • Conducting household surveys with the Census as the frame would be “very tough” going ahead.
  • The problem will intensify due to COVID-19.

Use of technology for survey

  • Mahalanobis never shied away from technology.
  • He was instrumental in bringing computers to India.
  • The Mahalanobis-led Indian Statistical Institute procured India’s first computer in 1956 and the second in 1959.

Consider the question asked in 2019 “How was India benefitted from the contributions of Sir M.Visvesvaraya and Dr M. S. Swaminathan in the fields of water engineering and agricultural science respectively?”


Mahalanobis wrote: “Statistics are a minor detail, but they do help.” This is an eternal truth. What Mahalanobis didn’t spell out is that one needs a top statistician for listening to the heartbeats of data and for framing data-based policy decisions for human welfare and national development.

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