Monday, March 26, 2007

Perils of Statistics in India: A tale of Rhino Park in Hooghly district

This story was narrated by a journalist friend , who recently came to Calcutta on his way to Nandigram (in Hooghly district): the place where forced land acquisition has made an embarrassing issue for the ruling party.

This is the funniest story I have heard about Statistics, and though as a student of statistics I am quite proud of the subject , I am forced to remember the saying " Lies , damn lies and statistics …….."

The story goes like this. A forest officer posted in Hooghly district of West Bengal got a communication from his superiors from the state capital to make a proposal for a National Park for Rhinos in Hooghly. The letter quoted a well known national report on wildlife where the district was noted to have a population of about 12 Rhinos. This forest officer, a local fellow was bit surprised by the figures as he had never seen or heard of a rhino is nearby region. He asked for the copy of the report as yes, his district was listed there for having a population of 12 rhinos. Curious by these strange statistics, he confirmed from his local sources but nobody had ever heard of a rhino in the nearby area. He reported this back and an investigation was carried out as to how a reputed survey is giving such nonsensical statistics. And guess what it was!!

Well, we Indians are known for our love of English: correct or incorrect, every educated person feels that English is the medium to impress the world. These statistics are usually collected by a questionnaire which is forwarded to each panchayat and it is a lowly village panchayat functionary who will be filling it up. So a rather educated Bengali Bhadralok sincerely filled up one such questionnaire about livestock in the village and mentioned Ducks, goose and Gander (male goose) separately. Another educated babu at the state HQ while compiling the data from various villages saw that only one panchayat has sent number of Ganders . Not aware with this English word, he decided that this must be number of Gondar( Rhinos in Bangla) and cursing the spelling mistake and lack of knowledge in the Panchayat fellow about the English word for gondar " corrected" the entry. Thus 12 rhinos in Hooghly district were born!! Needless to say, no one cross checked the data and the data got printed in the national report . While going through the data, the high officials in Forest departments decided to have a National Park for Rhinos, without doubting the data for a second.
So, here is the message for all of you, who rely on data from reputed sources blindly. Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say. Never lose your common sense while going through a Statistician's report or else we will have many more Rhino parks in this country.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Growing Up with Amar Chitra Katha

I love comics. They are a healthy mix of two good things of life: pictures and stories. Moreover , they are crisp and short . As a child I had a privilege of having two very sensible elder sisters who treasured their comics like jewels and later, passed on the legacy to me- the youngest of the trio. I can recall those happy days like it was yesterday ,when I will spent entire hot afternoon of Indian summer , deeply engrossed  in the stories of kings and queens, folk tales , theives and pirates, Panchtantra and occasionally phantom, Mandrake too. Oh ! those blissful days. My sisters used to ‘issue’ me comics for a limited time with all kinds of instructions of not folding them , no dog ears and no reading while eating . ( At times I violated the last one when they were not around) .Each comic was had a specific place in a particular stack according to its subject and of course ownership,( between my sisters). We were very proud of our collection of about 400 comics which was considerably more than that of any friend …and extreme care was taken to increase this collection at any possible opportunity viz visit of an uncle/aunt, birthdays, gain of some pocket money etc . Though we used to read all kinds of comics , our parents specially encouraged us to read Amar Chitra Katha. As a child I was not aware of the logic behind this preference but later in life I really thanked them for being so careful of what their kids were reading. Today, I do not miss Tintin or Aestrix , Phantom or Flash Gordon as much as I miss my days with various titles of Amar Chitra Katha. These story books were a real treat for a young person in my situation.
I gratefully acknowledge the role of Amar Chitra Katha in forming my opinions on a variety of subjects. It was through them that I was introduced to most of the Sanskrit classics , folk tales of various regions, myths and historical characters . I still have that collection intact at my parent’s house and I refuse to part with it unless I find some worthy inheritor. In fact when my niece was growing up we used to take out these comics for her, during her vacations and never missed to refresh our memory with another read . I am sure the same fondness is shared by many in my generation .
The amazing story of Amar Chitra Katha started in 1967-68 when an attempt to translate the myriad tales from Indian history and culture into comics was made to cover a wide spectrum of titles . It was the creative genius and foresight of the legendary editor, Anant Pai and the entrepreneurial zeal and courage of the publisher G.L. Mirchandani, Chairman of India Book House that give birth to a brand which delighted generations of children( and their parents) since then.

It is said that one day as he was watching a quiz programme on television; Anant Pai saw that the participating children from English-medium schools were well versed with the lore of Tarzan and the exploits of Greek gods but could not answer simple questions about the Ramayana. That is when he decided to use the popular medium of comics to acquaint Indian children with their rich cultural heritage. And god bless that decision! I passed many history exams in my childhood thanks to Amar Chitra Katha. I still remember that as a student of class 3, I was the only one who could give the entire list of Mughal dynasty in a school quiz. That was easy, for I had read about all those emperors in Amar Chitra Katha and my disciplined sisters used to keep the comics on historical characters in the strict order of history.
Through the medium of comics, Amar Chitra Katha brought to life the colourful mythologies and legends of India. The Route to your Roots was the catch phrase coined to describe the efforts of Amar Chitra Katha to tell tales of heroes and heroines from Indian mythology, history and folklore.
These comics enriched my storehouse of stories manifold. I still feel that my knowledge of folk tales, tales from Buddhist Jatakas, Jainism, Panchtantra, classics of various Indian languages and Hindu myths is much more than most others. All thanks to Amar Chitra Katha which made me associate each story with beautiful illustrations and well chosen dialogues. Later in life when I read the original stories/books , the images from comics were still in my mind. Best part about these comics was their factual correctness.
According to the strict editorial policy, each detail had to be culled from a reputed reference and had to be available for any query, because Amar Chitra Katha, by the 1980s was taken as an authentic secondary source of information. I feel sad that Anant Pai’s contribution in heralding this cultural information revolution still lacks proper acknowledgement in terms of civilian honours like Padma Bhushan .
But who cared for these details as a child. For me , they were interesting tales of princesses and kings, sadhus and reformers , a poor orphan girl in Patliputra or a farmer in King Harsha's kingdom. And all together, it was a world of wonder , magic and colours. Today , I feel very happy to find AMAR CHITRA KATHA back in the bookstores after a gap. Also a good database of the titles is available on their website . For me finding these books on a bookshelf is like meeting childhood friends….with a taste of good memories of happy days.