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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 29 New Delhi July 11, 2015

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis: A True Bharat Ratna

Saturday 11 July 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

June 29, 2015 marked the 122nd birth anniversary of Prof Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. On this occasion we reproduce the following piece by N.C. that appeared at the time of Mahalanobis’ birth centenary in 1993. This is particularly important now that the Narandra Modi dispensation has decided to completely devalue and destroy the Planning Commission which was painstakingly built during the days of the Nehru-Mahaalanobis model of development that charted out the path for the country’s self-reliant regeneration.

With Chandraswamys and Harshad Mehtas, Dawood Ibrahims and Bal Thackerays, the seamy side of political life has today come out in full view. One wonders in despair if these are the characters that will figure in the history books of the future, edging out others who in their own way contributed to the shaping of the country’s destiny.

It is not unnatural for such thoughts to come up today as we find that there has been hardly any effort to tell the new generation about the persons who helped in the building of modern India. Great names stick on because these cannot be easily effaced. Even if all the history text books are destroyed, the names of Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad and Rajaji, not to speak of Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru will not be forgotten. But what about the whole host of others who, with all their shortcomings, brought their quota of contributions towards the making of this nation, its politics, economy and cultural life? Not that any of them was above any controversy; in fact, most of them welcomed controversy since they in their respective spheres were path-breakers and helped towards shaping the outlook of the nation as a whole. When Homi Bhabha pressed for atomic research, many shrugged it off as a luxury which an impoverished country could not afford to dabble in.

Another personality of that age is today remem-bered mostly by his critics. That was Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. Incidentally, his birth centenary falls this week, on June 29. Today his name is recalled mostly by the new and enthusiastic worshippers of the Free Market ideology who blame Mahalanobis as one of the evil geniuses who forced the concept of planned economy on our political leaders, particularly Nehru.

If Mahalanobis had been living today, he would have relished that charge and got into an intense debate with gusto. Because, he believed like a true scientist that it is only through intensive debate and discussion one can work out a path of advance. Those of us in our young days, who had the good fortune of knowing him at close quarters, were always struck by his insistence on listening to and examining a contrary point of view. For Mahalanobis, active interaction was imperative in any quest for truth. In other words, what the Greeks called dialectics in its untrammelled form.

Mahalanobis was really a multi-faceted personality. My earliest encounters with him were in my Presidency College days in the early thirties. I was not a student of science, but we had special regard for him because he always stood out among his colleagues as a proud Indian, a nationalist who while commanding respect as an outstanding teacher, never towed the line of the Raj. Every time there was an upheaval among the students—for Calcutta has always been the traditional centre of the militant youth—he was sent for. Mahalanobis commanded their esteem not because he subscribed to their creed but because he was never tired of trying to understand their viewpoint and acknowledged their motivation and dedication.

Mahalanobis was really a restless soul. It is, of course, widely known that starting as a brilliant student of physics and later as an honoured teacher of the subject, he turned to statistics and came to be internationally recognised as one of the pioneers in establishing statistics as a science necessary for the present-day world. Starting from a small room in the Physics Laboratory, the Statistical Institute grew before our very eyes into the giant complex which it became in twenty years, through the sheer grit and irrepressible urge of one man.

Even in his young days, Mahalanobis was known for his remarkable capacity to set people in motion. Many would not remember today that he in the twenties figured prominently in the Brahmo Samaj as the leader of the young radicals who tried to rejuvenate the movement. More conspicuous, of course, was his role as the builder of Tagore’s Visva-bharati. One of the young adherents of the poet, Mahalanobis was the real organiser of the Visva-bharati from its inception. He was not part of the literati around Tagore, but he devoted himself towards building the great edifice that embodied his vision of making Santiniketan the seat of a truly universal culture—Visva-bharati.

The quality of Mahalanobis that I thought was truly great was his infinite urge to familiarise himself with all the currents of thought prevailing in his times. Like Homi Bhaba, I found that Mahalanobis on his own initiative established rapport with the leaders of the Left, and that included the entire spectrum from Yusuf Meherali to the Communists, whose party was then banned by the Raj. He was not excited by the day-to-day slogans of any moivement but tried to understand the thought-process behind the public position of any party or trend. And I have seen Mahalanobis taking pains to engage in extensive discussions with Acharya Kripalani and many others about the thrust of the Gandhian school of economics.

Mahalanobis might have known Nehru personally through his involvement with Tagore. I have personally seen how the links between the two were forged. Soon after his release from prison in 1945, when Panditji came to Calcutta and the overtures for the transfer of power could be heard for the first time, he spent a whole day with Mahalanobis at his residence, exchanging ideas about designing the future of the country about to be free. It was at that meeting that a regular link between the two was forged with the drafting of Pitambar Pant, then a young favourite of Panditji just out of prison, to Mahalanobis’ Statistical Institute, but really acting as the liaison between the two. This endured for two full decades and more. In fact, Pitambar became a permanent landmark in Mahalanobis’ establishment, making signal contributions in the quest for planning on which the scientist and the political leader set out from those early days.

Mahalanobis’ eagerness to build bridges with other schools of political thinking was not confined to his relationship with Nehru. He took the initiative in establishing such a relationship with others as well particularly of the radical school. If one were to look up the list of those who joined his establishment in those early days, one would fine that quite a few found their way there as Pitambar did. As a thinker concerned with designing the country’s economic set-up, Mahalanobis wanted input from all sections seriously engaged in the same pursuit but from diverse points of view. As always, Mahalanobis was insistent on active interaction among them all.

This brings one to the current impression about Mahalanobis’ contribution towards evolving a model of development for our country having just thrown away its colonial shackles. It is fashionable nowadays to brand him as having imported the totalitarian Soviet model of development in our country, the evil genius who misled the gullible Nehru Nothing could be farther from truth. An unmitigated rationalist, Mahalanobis was no advocate of any imported model. To him, there had to be a rationale of development based on the neeeds and perceptions of our own people; at the same time the rich variety of experiences of other countries had to be understood and assimilated by us.

Even without being economists some of us used to argue with him on the question of planning and its objective in our specific condition. Mahalanobis was clear in his outlook that a country of such diverse levels of development and perceptions of the people could not be put into the straitjacket of a highly-centralised authority, what is now called the command economy. Throughout Mahalanobis was an ardent advocate of mixed economy, a term which in our pristine Leftist ebullience we used to run down. For Mahalanobis, the classical model of the Industrial Revolution needed to be tempered with the experience and specific requirements of our country with its huge rural hinterland and a heavy burden of destitution perpetuated by the retreating colonial order.

As a scientist, he never subscribed to a dogmatic approach and as a rationalist he never imposed a line; he always strove for a solution through active interaction of different view-points and experiences. It was precisely on this score that Mahalanobis made a unique, historic contribution towards the methodology of evolving a strategy of development. With the ready support that he enlisted from Nehru, he took the initiative in inviting economists and social thinkers from practically all parts of the world. They came from the US, Britain, Poland, France, Russia and from China. In fact, the distinguished Chinese economist, Dr Chan Hanseng, did not belong to the Communist Party but was active in Madam Soong Chinling’s Democratic Party which took to Sun Yatsen’s enlightened ideals. A well-known specialist on agrarian problems, he spent quite some time in the Statistical Institute.

Such expansive discussions in which participants from abroad interacted freely with our economists of diverse schools, both official and non-official, led to the drafting of the plan-frame for the Second Five Year Plan. And the plan-frame itself was thrown open for national debate for one full year before the government finalised the Second Plan. Compare this democratic approach to reach a national consensus on the country’s economic strategy with the manner in which the free-market brand of economic reforms is now being hustled through. Under cover of the panic created by the balance-of-payments crisis, structural adjustments have been introduced as per the Fund-Bank prescription without caring for a national debate.

Here lies the difference between the genuine democratic urge of a truly scientific mind like Mahalanobis and the smart operators of the economic establishment of today. No wonder the greatness of a Homi Bhaba or a Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis is bereft of any protocol recognition. No award for these true Bharat Ratnas of our times.

(Mainstream, July 3, 1993)

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