‘Close Encounters of the Statistical Kind’: PhD before the Digital Era

The PhD student of today is so blessed, little does she know it. I started work on my PhD in Economics more than three decades ago. My Professor insisted that I should not do any field work (collect primary data) though the topic I chose was ‘Women’s Work Participation in Agriculture’. In his view, as a PhD student I should familiarize myself, actually ‘master’, the use of secondary data from public sources. During this period I had the most interesting ‘close encounters of the statistical kind’ with data and statisticians of the National Sample Survey Office in Kolkata. This association with the National Statistical Office (NSO) and officers continues till today.

The main office that manages field operations (FOD, Field Operations Division) and designs the survey (SDRD, Survey Design and Research Division) was located in Calcutta (Kolkata of today). Before the digital era, household and other survey data of the NSO was collected on paper schedules and manually fed into a mainframe computer. Statistically valid estimates of variables were generated at the regional level (few regions within a state), but this information was rarely available in the printed NSS publications. The published reports contained information at the country and sometimes at state level. Unit records of the household level data, easily downloaded today, were not available to the common woman!

My Professor was able to get permission for me to access the regional level data! Great news, I was overjoyed, but that meant physically copying the data on to datasheets. Even photo copying was a rare event! Worse still, the data could not be taken out of the statistical office. And so began my grand adventure of ‘close encounters of the statistical kind’, travelling to Calcutta to collect this data physically.

Recently, as I was clearing material at home I came across a series of letters I had written from Calcutta to my husband (relatively newly married at that time) during this period. Some excerpts from these letters of my experiences with collection of data and description of Calcutta, where I grew up and went to school, are reproduced here:

Arrival in Calcutta: “I arrived quite safely here in Calcutta. The Gitanjali Express turned out to be good. It was like the Navjivan Express (train from Madras to Ahmedabad). My seat was next to the pantry car and the train was full of women and children. In my cubicle in the train was an old couple and a young man travelling on work (recording my apprehension of travelling alone in the Northern belt of India). I had no fear of any kind and slept peacefully. I only got a fright when I reached Howrah (railway station at Calcutta) because there was no one to receive me at the station. I kept my cool, got a porter and after waiting sufficiently long, got to a telephone (no mobiles remember, nothing digital yet!) My friend was on her way!” Phew!

Oh Calcutta: (Oh Kolkata) Reasons for her delay were many. “There was an opposition political party meeting in the Calcutta Maidan (Large grounds in the center of the city), being addressed by all the big wig politicians and the crowds were something to see. It took us hours to reach home in South Calcutta, being jammed in the traffic. I got my first taste of the Calcutta crowds again after a decade. To top it all a football match, India versus Argentina, Nehru cup, was on in the city for the football crazy fans of Calcutta!” Wow! What a day to arrive, politics and football, the staple food of people of Calcutta.

Arrival at the Statistical Office: “Arrived at the statistical office where a red carpet welcome awaited me! The PhD student from Delhi, who is to share the burden of copying the regional level records, is to arrive tomorrow. The officer in charge turned out to be a country cousin, and related to someone in whose firm my father is a consultant!” Obviously social networks are helpful even in data collection.

“To help us with the ‘copying’ enterprise, the officers made out a form with columns for various employment statuses, usual, current and daily activity. This was stenciled and copies were rolled out for us. (Photocopying of all the data in the NSS format would prove expensive and cumbersome.) The PhD student from Delhi and I will be sharing the work. Each of us will do half the work and the officers will ‘xerox’ it for us so that we can keep a copy. So that really reduces the work by half. Data other than employment status are a few tables and I would need to copy it for all regions myself, so it may take a little longer. Basically there are only 6 tables compiled at the regional level, one on consumer expenditure and five from the Rural Labour Enquiry.  I will wait for Professor to arrive and decide what data to copy and at what level.”

Professor arrives: “My Professor arrived this morning and of course he doubled my work load. The 1974-75 Rural Labour Enquiry region level data has also been added! Anyway the pace at which we have been working is fantastic and I still hope to leave Calcutta as planned. My new friend, the PhD student, is hard working and that helps.”

“Meeting old friends in Calcutta has not happened as I work myself to the bone! I even bring work home and work at night and on holidays. My only aim is to finish and get back as quickly as possible”

Sightseeing at Calcutta: “Today I managed a ‘holiday’, only because the officer in charge did not show up yesterday and I did not get any further material to work on. I definitely hope he shows up tomorrow or my work will be stuck. My friend (who I was staying with in Calcutta) and I had a wonderful time gallivanting around the city all day. We went to the old building where we stayed while I was in school, opposite the Rabindra Sarovar lakes. The whole of Calcutta has become a dump, but still continues to charm! We saw the film by Mrinal Sen, ‘Khandhar’, which was nice though a little slow. Hope to get back to hard ‘labour’ tomorrow!”

Hard ‘labour’: “Things here are absolutely fine. I will have to work hard in order to complete the work, but I think I can manage if all goes as planned. I have only two long tables from RLE 1974-75 and the 27th Round regional level participation rates left to copy. Besides there are some 32nd Round special tables for scheduled castes and tribes. The information on irrigation is available only for number of households with irrigated and unirrigated lands. There is no information on area irrigated. That information I will have to collect from the Season and Crop Reports that are available in Krishi Bhavan in Delhi. Let’s see how I can manage that!”

Leaving Calcutta: “Yesterday I got my ticket for the Gitanjali Express leaving on the first. It leaves here at 1.15 p.m. and reaches Bombay (now Mumbai) the next day at 10.00 p.m. I also sent a telegram to you yesterday about this.”

And so ended my two-week long sojourn in Calcutta in the hallowed premises of the National Statistical Office! Collecting data was a lot of hard work for a PhD student in the pre-digital era! This was the beginning of my ‘close encounters of the statistical kind’ that continuse till date!

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