French Data Analysts in India: Early days of Compu-Graphics

Anne Chappuis

I must admit that I came to India as an unwilling visitor in 1972. I was a student of tropical geography and had done the fieldwork for my MA in Western Africa, where I wanted to continue my research work. One of my professor, Luc de Golbéry, who became my husband later, had done his research in Andhra Pradesh and was very keen that I do my PhD in India. I came reluctantly, with the intention to show him my disinterest for the country. But luck had it otherwise. I stayed for a fortnight in the village he had studied and fell in love with the country. The answers I tried to get on socio-ethnic questions eluded me. And the more I tried to understand the more distant and complex seemed the answer. This became my lifelong interest.

I had accompanied an MA student to his field village and noticed people dressed in colourful attires quite different from the others. I enquired about them to be told that they were Lambada, a nomadic tribe of herders that had come a century ago from Rajasthan. I had always wanted to study nomads and I tried to find books about them. As I could only find some material in the official district gazettes I proposed it as the subject of my thesis. I chose a village with the help of the Tashildar and got the approval of the Headman of the tanda (Lambada settlement). It was in a remote valley in the eastern part of Nallamalai forest. I came back the next year to stay for five month at a stretch. There was no transport, no electricity, no windows, no mirrors. People became very friendly the very first day when I decided to climb the hill next to the village. Before going, I asked someone to accompany me. Women came to me and started massaging my legs making me understand that I would suffer. I had estimated the trip up and down to take about three hours but checked with them to be sure. They told me that it would take me the whole day! It did not discourage me. Being a geographer means that wherever there is an elevated point one wants to climb to have an overview of the landscape. I came back, after the estimated three hours, to see an astonished crowd that adopted me. I went back to France in November to attend classes of a post-graduate course in demography in Paris. The bus between Saint-Lazare station and Tolbiac university was passing in front of the Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, which were lavishly decorated and illuminated with Christmas gifts. The contrast between the austere life of a remote village and this luxury debauchery was too much and made me feel sick. I decided that my life was worth living if I could in any way be helpful to the people I had just left.

I then applied for a PhD scholarship in the Indo-French programme and was attached to the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj in Rajendranagar near Hyderabad. My topic was the study of the settlement patterns of a caravan tribe of herders, the Lambada of central India. The dean, Mr Zaheer, IAS officer from Lucknow, was a Francophile and used to call me every day after lunch for discussion when I was not in the field. I had tasted sweet paan in Guntur and liked it. When he asked me if I liked paan I replied enthusiastically “Yes”. But I did not know that Lucknow paan were very different! This paan was made from betel leaves specially sent from there and saada (plain). What a shock when I had my first chew! But I could not go back, so I kept it in the side of my cheek and chew it slowly. The same ceremony lasted for a week, by which time I got used to the taste and actually started liking it. And now I don’t like sweet paan! Another incident that changed my life happened when one of my French friend came to join me in my research work. We had planned to go to Rajasthan in search of material on the origin of the Lambada. I went to Mumbai to receive her. When travelling in the bus that took us from the airport, I looked at her and suddenly it struck me that she was looking very different from others: she was white. Suddenly I realised that I was also white, but having spent several months with exclusively non-white persons I had assimilated myself and had forgotten the colour of my skin. This shows how the perception of one’s colour is cultural and constructed.

After my PhD was over in 1979, I became the joint director of the Indo-French Compu-Graphics and Planning Project[1] in Andhra Pradesh Planning Department for six years. This project, initiated by Mr B.P.R. Vithal (IAS, Secretary Finance and Planning) was a first attempt at computerizing Jacques Bertin’s methods[2] for decision makers. In 1984, N.T. Rama Rao, the chief minister (C.M.) of Andhra Pradesh, wished to implement an administrative reform to bring governance closer to people. It entailed restructuring the Panchayati Raj system and replacing the 330 Talukas by 1104 smaller units, named Mandals[3]. The challenge was to locate the Mandal headquarters in a scientific way to minimise the influence of local politicians, who would try to get their village selected, even if non-eligible. The IAS officer in charge of the programme, Mr Ashanta, thought that the only way to get freedom of work was to get the C.M.’s approval of a white paper describing the scientific method. We did a first trial in Guntur district and prepared a computer-generated map to show the location of different infrastructures. A formal meeting was organised with the C.M., the Secretary in charge, the Directors of the Planning Department, the Bureau of Economics & Statistics (BES) and the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS). We explained the project and I handed over the map to N.T.R. He took it as if it was an UFO and turned it upside down, till I pointed out to him the elements to be considered for the decision. He approved the white paper. We worked literally day and nights for six months to get the information, enter it, analyse it, map it. It was a great success. After the project was over, and the new headquarters had been approved, we were told by the Secretary that 80% of the new Mandal headquarters were based on scientific location, while they had expected it to be 20% at the beginning of the project. It may be worthwhile noting that the faculty in charge of the programme in CESS was one of the Indian exchange student with Strasbourg department of geography, Prof. Afzal Mohammad, who had become Director in charge of Planning Atlas.

One must realise that at that time there were no micro-computers, no monitors attached to the HP calculators. We were working blindly till the final output was taken, initially on a plotter (automatic drawing machine), and later on the first programmable dot matrix, an Olivetti. We had to wait for the final output to visualise the work. Trials and errors were limited as the output material (special pens and special paper, or ink cassettes) had to be imported and was costly.[4]

Examples of output in the Indo-French Compu-Graphics and Planning Project

  1. Maps
Plotter Output
Dot Matrix Printer Output

2. Graphs

Plotter Output   
Dot Matrix Printer Output

The calculators were also very short in memory, with cassettes of initially 32k, later 64k! The data had to be stored very carefully, optimising every possible bit. In fact, the programmers had designed the input in the data base so as to store 0/1 or Yes/No answers one a single bit! Storing data on a dozen infrastructures, for about 28000 villages, in cassettes of 64k was a real challenge. We did it by splitting the storage, organising it by district instead of storing the entire state at a time. I remember presenting our work at a workshop on “Cartographie et Développement” (“Mapping for Development”) organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and IRD[5], and one participant saying at the end of my presentation: “You are lying, this is not possible!”. It was our proper planning and designing that led us to achieve success.

Anne Chappuis, born in 1948, PhD (Tropical Geography) 1979. She has spent 49 years in India with 5 years of extensive field work and 44 years work with Andhra Pradesh Government. She is among the early pioneers of visual analytics and started visual data analysis in the seventies. She has in France and in India for local bodies and decision makers on development issues and helped diagnose the problem through maps, graphs and visual matrix, identify similarities and proximities, or oppositions, go from diagnosis to identification of risks and opportunities to develop future strategies and plans.

Ed. Pranav Sharma is a science historian and the curator of the History of Indo-French Scientific Partnership Project.


[1] COMPUTER ASSISTED CARTOGRAPHY IN DEVELOPING NATIONS, D. R. F. Taylor, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5B6





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