India Uncut

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Annie Hall happens to Amartya Sen

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent report of how Amartya Sen recently had an Annie Hall moment in China. What's an Annie Hall moment? As the piece puts it:
In the Woody Allen movie "Annie Hall," a character is sounding off about the Canadian media theorist Marshall MacLuhan when the subject himself appears and says: "Excuse me, I'm Marshall MacLuhan. You know nothing of my work." Woody Allen then turns to the audience and asks, "don't you wish life were like that?"

Well, I certainly do, and good Mr Sen has got a taste of it. Speaking at a gig in Hong Kong, he apparently claimed that, in WSJ's words, "Maoist China had actually made great strides in medicine, bringing down child mortality rates and prolonging life expectancy. Moving to a privatized system was making the system less fair and efficient." Here's how the WSJ guys, no doubt guffawing and shaking madly in joy as they wrote it, described what happened next:
To back up his remarkable claim, Mr. Sen said that the rate of growth in life expectancy in China was slowing down. Or at least it was doing so compared to India, which is catching up with China in life expectancy. "The gap between India and China has gone from 14 years to seven [since 1979] because of moving from a Canada-like system to a U.S. like system," said Mr. Sen, adding that he thought this change by China was a mistake.

But, alas, there was someone in the audience who actually had lived through the Cultural Revolution in China, and had been one of Mao's "barefoot doctors." He didn't see things quite the same way as Mr. Sen. In fact, he said the comments had quite surprised him.

"I observed with my own eyes the total absence of medicine in some parts of China. The system was totally unsustainable. We used to admire India," said Weijian Shan, now a banker in Hong Kong. Mr. Shan then added an anecdote that tickled the audience, telling how when he first visited Taiwan in the 1980s and saw young medical school graduates serving in the countryside, he thought to himself, "China ought to copy Taiwan."

Read it all. Sen v Shan has a nice sound to it, as if it's the tagline of an Indian co-production of a Jackie Chan film. Chan, of course, plays Shan, and wins mightily in the end.

Update: Anand of Locana writes in to me saying: "I feel the WSJ report doesn't do justice to Sen's position on the whole issue. Sen is clear that it's the lack of democracy that's at fault in the very slow progress as far as life expectancy in China is concerned. As for the comparisons with the Maoist period, that inference is based on the facts at hand." Anand points to an essay by Amartya Sen in the New York Review of Books that lays out Sen's position better.

Anand also writes:
Somebody sounding off about someone else and the latter correcting the former is understandable and that's quite funny too. But is that the case when someone "sounds off" about a society, and a single person from that society "tries to" correct the former's stand? I think there's a lot of difference between the two situations. For instance I'm from Kerala, and now if I claim that I've seen more men in Kerala than women, and hence Sen is wrong in saying that Kerala has a 1.06 women to men ratio, will that constitute an Annie Hall moment?

Fair point, Anand. So we'll make the Sen v Shan battle less one-sided in the film, with Chan playing Shan and Govinda playing Sen. That should be fun.
amit varma, 5:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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