P.C. Mahalanobis, Statistician and Planner, founder of Indian Statistical Institute

Prakash Chandra Mahalanobis (1893-1972) was not just the founder of Indian Statistical Institute, but one of the leaders trying to shape up a new India, as it emerged free from a colonial rule. A genius in planning, he was one of the brains behind India's second five year plan which ushered in a new era of industrial and agricultural advancement of a nascent republic.  His was the thoughtfulness that launched the National Sample Survey (NSS) in India and the Indian Statistical Institute, crucial tools for planning as it was then. It is amazing that Mahalanobis, trained in Cambridge as a physicist, and later a teacher of physics, chose a path of a statistician and planner for the service to his motherland. His life was like that – full of surprises.

He was born in Calcutta in 1893. Prashanta Chandra, his father was a social activist. And the son graduate in 1912 in Physics. In 1915 he took a tripos degree from the Kings College, Cambridge. Though he wished to do research in Cavendish Laboratory, he had to return to India for various reasons. But before he set sail, he had collected all back issues of 'Biometrica', the famous journal of statistics related to biology. In India, he was appointed as a teacher in the Indian Education society. Later he became the principal of the Presidency College in Calcutta. But his mind was after the science of statistics. And it was this urge that led to the founding of the two statistical organizations mentioned above. India's leading status among the developing countries in statistical systems owes it all to Mahalanobis. He prepared and gave to Prime minister Nehru on the importance of an expanded public sector to cure the chronic problem of unemployment. And it impressed Nehru immensely and it was how Mahalanobis was entrusted with the task of drafting the second five year plan for the country. There is criticism that his planning model was more statistical and mathematical than stressing on the human capital.

His interests went beyond all this to anthropology and even meteorology. He was honored by London's Royal Statistical Society in 1945 by offering him distinguished membership. In 1957 he became the honorary president of International Statistical Institute. Government of India honored him by conferring the Padma Vibhushan on the man who authored around 20 distinguished science articles and hundreds of other essays on various subjects. He died in 1972.