Nikhil Menon’s Planning Democracy — How a Professor, an Institute and An Idea Shaped India review: The man of numbers

One of the post-colonial world’s most ambitious experiments was the Indian Planning Commission, which was set up in March 1950. It was a merger between “Soviet-inspired economic planning and Western-style liberal democracy” and with each Five-Year Plan, the Planning Commission set the course for the nation’s economy. Would planning resolve a “life of contradictions” that Ambedkar had warned about? Jawaharlal Nehru recognised the “tension” between economic and political freedoms but believed it could be eased through planning. In  Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute and An Idea Shaped India, Nikhil Menon profiles the early years of that planning and growth, which were inexorably tied to the legacy of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), established and nourished by Mahalanobis.

Statistician by accident

The book depicts the epic journey of a charismatic professor of physics at Calcutta’s Presidency College who pioneered the study and practice of the discipline of statistics in India. The first three chapters tell the story of a young Mahalanobis’ accidental meeting with ‘statistics’ due to a delayed ship journey to India from England, his lifelong courtship with the subject, how he slowly but steadily became a statistician and established the ISI, his tireless and bold leadership to develop and promote statistics and a survey culture in India, and his nourishing of a generation of excellent academics.

The Professor, as he was called, instilled the idea of data-driven planning in a new nation, deeply assisted by the ISI. It was Subhas Chandra Bose, as president of the Indian National Congress, who was instrumental in connecting Mahalanobis and Nehru in 1937 — the beginning of a life-long collaboration that would help build the nation in the next few decades. When Nehru became Prime Minister, he relied heavily on Mahalanobis.

A self-trained statistician, his presidential address titled ‘Why Statistics’ at the 1950 Indian Science Congress is an excellent account of his view on the role of statistics in planning and development. The author rightly perceives that Mahalanobis’ physics background shaped his viewpoint as an economist and planner. He believed that strong national statistics is a prerequisite for national development, and to his credit, he could convince relevant people about this. Planning moved from the realm of politics to data and numbers due to Mahalanobis and his ISI.

The book draws attention to a golden age of numbers and data-crunching with the establishment of institutions like the Planning Commission, the Central Statistical Organisation, National Sample Survey, the spread of statistical education in the country, and the creation of the Indian Statistical Service. The ISI built its reputation on the emerging science of sample surveys, writes Menon: “Perhaps the most significant of these surveys were the ones that Mahalanobis supervised for the forecasting of jute yields, one of Bengal’s primary cash crops. These were pioneering exercises, among the largest sample surveys ever undertaken till then.”

The book describes how a precursor of GDP was instituted in India, and how a poverty line was drawn. A statistician had authored the most important national policy directive in the 1950s. Mahalanobis contributed to shaping the Second Five Year Plan (1956-1961) with its ideological focus on heavy industry as the key determinant of growth. His ISI also shaped the Third Five Year Plan, which was a derivative of its predecessor.

The times we are living in is widely perceived as an era of Big Data. However, historically, data often appears to be ‘big’ when it becomes intractable to available technology. Mahalanobis also encountered difficulties in complex mathematical calculations when his big surveys generated lots of data.

Menon’s book devotes a chapter to how Mahalanobis could procure the first two computers of the country at the ISI. Thus, a professor of physics not only became a statistician and an economist, but he also ushered in the age of computers in India.

Early foray

It’s a very well-researched book that describes several intriguing stories in a well-connected manner. While Mahalanobis’ earliest statistical forays have been described with care, the author possibly missed one — perhaps Mahalanobis’ earliest statistical adventure. When Tagore introduced Mahalanobis to Brajendranath Seal — a scholar and educator — in 1917, Brajendranath asked the 24-year-old Mahalanobis to analyse the exam records of Calcutta University.

Overall, the coexistence of centralised planning and technocratic expertise with democratic participation is illustrated in the book. While reading it, I was continuously thinking that its title may be a bit over-ambitious. Planning in newly independent India was aimed mostly at the development of the infrastructure of the nation. If the democratic structure of the country also has been strengthened to some extent by that planning, that was possibly not the target of the exercise. The Planning Commission, of course, has a new avatar now, the NITI Aayog. But Mahalanobis’ shoes are yet unfilled — and the book hits the nail on the head on this point.

Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute and An Idea Shaped India; Nikhil Menon, Penguin/Viking, ₹799.

The reviewer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 2:25:13 pm |