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 strove to go beyond elite technocratic circles and involve ordinary people in the planning process.

This was a process which involved college students, Bollywood stars, villagers volunteering their labor to build up local infrastructure, planning-themed kavi sammelans, sadhus, and – of course – the creative energy of Films Division animators who brought cartoon aliens into the service of five-year plans.

In this episode, Menon talks about the successes and failures of Indian planning efforts. While Mahalanobis developed cutting-edge capabilities for data collection, the Second Five-Year Plan spectacularly flopped.

What lessons can modern-day India derive from its planning experiments? In spite of the abolition of the Planning Commission in 2014, why has economic planning retained a certain popular appeal, even resurfacing in the agendas of Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee? And why has India’s statistical infrastructure so dramatically decayed in recent years?

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.