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P C Mahalanobis



This renowned scientist, statistician helped formulate the blueprint for India’s industrialisation. He also founded Indian Statistical Institute and devised the Mahalanobis distance.

India observes National Statistics Day on the birth anniversary of PC Mahalanobis, often referred to as the 'father of Indian statistics'

The theme of Statistics Day, 2021 is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)- 2 (End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture).

Born in Calcutta to Probodh Chandra and Nirodbashini on June 29, 1893, Prasanta Chandra Mahalabonis was the eldest of six siblings. His grandfather Gurucharan was involved in the Brahmo Samaj and was a follower of Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore. He was encouraged to pursue intellectual interests quite early in his life.

After passing out of the Brahmo Boys School, he joined the Presidency College and graduated in physics in 1912. He travelled to England where he joined the King’s College, Cambridge, for further studies. There, he met the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and was deeply influenced by him.

Career

He worked for a while at the Cavendish Laboratory with physicist CTR Wilson. He returned to India and was appointed professor of physics at the Presidency College in 1922. He taught there for three decades but the job did not stop him from pursuing his new found interest in statistics He formed a group that was interested in statistics. Later, that core group expanded and eventually, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) was founded in 1932. In the next year, he launched Sankhya: The Indian Journal Of Statistics, a milestone in the history of science in India.

He also established the National Sample Survey in 1950 and set up the Central Statistical Organisation to coordinate statistical activities. He became a member of the Planning Commission in 1955 and continued in that capacity till 1967. In 1959, the ISI was declared as an institute of national importance.

Major contributions

Mahalanobis devised a measure of comparison between two data sets, now called Mahalanobis distance. Widely used in the field of cluster analysis and classification, he first proposed it in 1930 in the context of a study on racial likeness.

Later, he introduced innovative techniques for conducting large-scale sample surveys, calculated acreages and crop yields, using the method of random sampling. He devised a statistical method called fractile graphical analysis, used to compare socio-economic conditions of varied groups. He introduced pilot surveys, advocated the usefulness of sampling methods and included topics such as public opinion, consumer expenditure, crop acreage and plant disease.

In 1923, he married Nirmala Kumari, daughter of educationist Herambhachandra Maitra. His birth anniversary is celebrated as the National Statistics Day. Totally dedicated to his profession, he remained active with research work till the very end of his life. He died on June 28, 1972, a day before his 79th birthday.

Honours, achievements

Considered the father of modern statistics in India, he was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan in 1968. He was also conferred a large number of awards by international organisations, underscoring his stature as a luminary in his sphere.

He chaired the UN Sub-Commission on Sampling (1947-51) and became fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, UK, in 1954. Top statistical organizations in erstwhile USSR and the United States also honoured him, as did the King’s College, Cambridge.

Interesting Facts

1.He was the backbone behind India’s second five-year-plan (1956 - 1961) which laid the blueprint for industrialisation and development in India. It was a period during which hydroelectric projects and five steel plants at Bhilai, Durgapur, and Rourkela were established, coal production increased, more railway lines were added and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Atomic Energy Commission of India were established.

2.In England, Mahalanobis was introduced to the journal Biometrika. Intrigued by it, he brought the complete set of the journal to India. In 1933, ISI brought out Sankhya - a journal along the lines of Biometrika.

3.The actor Shazad Latif portrayed the character of Mahalanobis in the 2015 movie titled The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the math genius whom he was influenced by.

4.He analysed 60 years of data regarding the floods in Odisha and published his findings in 1926. This analysis later formed the basis for construction of the Hirakud dam on the Mahanadi river.

Source: Wikipedia, britannica.com, famouspeople.com, livemint.com

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