Statistics in India Today-Past Perfect, Future Tense!

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Statistics in India Today-Past Perfect, Future Tense!
A P Gore
Professor, Department of Statistics, University of Pune
President, Indian Society for Probability and Statistics

Today we are all used to the idea of young Indian techies traveling all across the world providing IT solutions and services. But hardly anyone knows that a similar trend started 50 years ago. What? You ask incredulously. But there were no computers then, let alone PCs. Very true. Those techies were statisticians, helping many nations, some free and others still in colonial bondage, in their attempts at development. How did this come about? To answer such a question, we have to trace a little bit of history.

Statistics is a young discipline, barely a hundred years old. It came to India as Professor P C Mahalanobis traveled home from England after the First World War and discovered that a journal named ‘Biometrika’ of this fledgling discipline had many things potentially useful for India. Perhaps the first Indian to get formal education in this subject was P.V. Sukhatme, who completed his Ph.D. in statistics from the University of London in 1936. He settled down in Delhi as a founder leader of a small statistics group within the Imperial (later, Indian) Council for Agricultural Research. Soon his work became well known and in 1956 he was appointed Director, Statistics Division, Food and Agriculture Organization, UN, Rome. There was a general awareness that progress in agriculture needed research, which in turn needed statistics. But a trained statistician was a rare breed. The new chief knew of one source of manpower. ICAR Delhi. The rest, as they say, is history.

1933, the year in which young Sukhatme joined the University of London was also the year in which Professor P C Mahalanobis founded the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). He launched a series of statistical researches concerning critical social issues of the time such as management of floods, assessment of yields of jute and other crops, anthropometrical analysis of ethnic elements of Indian society. ISI attracted an outstanding pool of talent and soon became (by an act of Parliament) an institute of national importance. Associates of Professor Mahalanobis such as S N Roy, R C Bose and C R Rao dazzled the world by their contributions to theory of statistics. By 1960, India began to be counted in the top league of nations in the field of statistical theory and practice. The league consisted of UK (where modern statistics flowered), USA and Russia.

Today, the discipline of statistics in India can boast of a separate ministry in the central government (Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation), a separate arm of bureaucracy (Indian Statistical Service), a world class set up for information gathering called National Sample Survey Organization, several specialized research institutes (ISI, Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute, Institute for Research in Medical Statistics), nearly a dozen journals, about 100 educational centers that offer training at masters and Ph.D. level and perhaps a thousand or more colleges with degree programs. In this age of outsourcing, many pharmaceutical industries have established centers for statistical analysis of their data, in Mumbai. Similar centers for business intelligence use statisticians for analytics (stock market, retail sales management etc.) This is a very creditable list for any country.

And yet, all is not well. Is the statistics community able to face challenges arising from problems of development? Regrettably, the answer is far from a resounding yes. There are many problems. Some of these may be common with other fields of science while some may be peculiar to statistics. Among the common problems, we face low demand for seats and low quality of entrants, small number of Ph.D. awards, a shortage of researchers and a great variation in the quality of training and output. In addition, one major problem I...
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