An alien from Planet Number 7468932 visits a humble farmer, patiently listens to his woes, and returns every five years to tour economic progress in the farmer’s country. Is this the premise of a B-grade science fiction flick dreamed of by a Hollywood director? No: it is the handiwork of the government of India, an animated film produced in 1967 as part of a broader effort to popularise economic planning and five-year plans.
Nikhil Menon’s Planning Democracy documents the fascinating – and often bizarre – world of Indian economic planning in the 1950s and 1960s. At the centre of this story is Prasanta Kumar Mahalanobis, the genius statistician who was the brains behind India’s ambitious Second Five-Year Plan.
Mahalanobis, known simply as “the Professor” in the halls of the Indian Statistical Institute and the Planning Commission, powered Indian planning through statistics, turning up his nose at the discipline of economics.
With a crack academic team that would be the envy of any modern-day academic institution, he put India at the forefront of global developments in sampling surveys and also brought the first digital computers to the country.
But Indian planning was also meant to be democratic, which meant that the government consciously…