Reverse Brain Drain in India – Why now?

Reverse Brain Drain in India Image

Reverse Brain Drain in India Image

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when India was just beginning to open up its economy, financing international education became easier and this led to a large segment of our best students graduating from prestigious institutes like IIT, AIIMS, IIM, etc., migrating overseas to pursue higher education.

At that time, there was a lot of animated debate about how ‘brain drain’ was increasing and how the country was being deprived of services of the best academic brains in the country despite the government incurring huge costs to train them in their basic years. Many argued that there should be restrictions placed on engineers and doctors from moving overseas and they be forced to work for a minimum number of years in India before being allowed to study or work overseas.

But that was then. Today, the nation is witnessing increasing migration from the West back to India, with greater number of professionals preferring opportunities back home. So what really caused this change and why are professionals returning back after having experienced a better quality of life that came along with higher paychecks?

Reasons for Brain Drain from India in the late 80s and 90s  

Back then, India had IITs and AIIMS as the only internationally respected academic institutions. When students passed out of school, most had only two basic career choices; either one became an engineer or a doctor, the rest would go in for civil services, defence forces or pursued a vocation. There were very few academic streams and there were even fewer institutions that provided quality education. The infrastructure in education was way behind what the developed nations offered, while the faculty remained outdated, both in content and teaching methodology.

Also, there were very few job options for engineers passing out as the private sector was yet to expand and offer greater opportunities, leaving public sector companies as the only option. And these places were certainly not known for innovation or thriving research. Most of these young engineering students saw their parents struggle to make ends meet and live a poor quality of life despite putting in hard work through their entire career. So much so, most professors in IITs and IIMs themselves would advise students to go abroad and pursue their masters and Ph.D. and preferably settle there.

This was also a time when the IT industry was beginning to explode in the West, throwing up exciting opportunities in both hardware and software development. The Indian engineers, who were in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Germany pursuing various streams in engineering at that time, felt they had a natural talent for IT and began migrating to the industry. The rest is history.

Some of the most successful stories out of Silicon Valley have been centered on Indians and the success trail continues even today. The same is true for doctors, most of whom have made their mark in medical practice and research. In fact, most of the senior professors teaching in top universities in the U.S. today, owe their success to the decision to move to the West in the 80s and 90s.

But what is significant to note is not their success in earning so well or in living a high quality of life there, but the fact that they are today directly or indirectly responsible for triggering the India growth story. If India today is witnessing massive interest and investment from the international community, a large part of the credit goes to the NRI diaspora. Had institutions like the IITs and IIMs not been there in the 70s, 80s and 90s, we would not have had the likes of Sunder Pichai, Satya Nadella, Vinod Khosla, Vinod Dham, Indra Nooyi, Padmaja Warrier and Rajat Gupta (his current incarceration notwithstanding). These are the people who became role models for many in the current generation and the success story continues, as India throws up talent in greater numbers.

So what’s making a large part of these very successful people come back to India? And why now?

India now is the fastest growing economy amongst the emerging markets and will continue to remain in the high growth trajectory for several years. With the economy growing stronger each year, more investments have been pouring in and likewise the growth opportunities in almost every sector is tremendous. All sectors requires massive investment, trained manpower, technology and supporting infrastructure, thereby presenting an exciting opportunity to those who possess the requisite skills, experience, investment or technology. And most NRIs who have studied, lived and worked in the developed countries have some or all these attributes.

With most of the developed economies stagnating in growth and new options, India offers a far greater opportunity along with a vastly improved ecosystem, unlike in the 80s and 90s. Take hospitals, for instance. With the advent of corporatised hospitals, the quality of Indian medical infrastructure and services has vastly improved. Experienced doctors of Indian origin who have been visiting India in recent years find the entire medical ecosystem much closer to those in the West. The wide use of state-of-the-art technology in medical care matches the levels these doctors have been exposed to and now they feel they have an opportunity to come back and bring with them the experience that they have gained there.

The emotional connect is very strong as India has always been a society with strong family and kinship ties. Therefore, it is not surprising to see a doctor or an engineer, who has lived in the U.S. for over 25 years, now wanting to re-locate to India to live and work here and the same goes for his children who have been born and brought up there. As they reach their college years, they begin to see the opportunities in India are far greater than what the West is offering, especially post study.

Furthermore, they have witnessed severe recession and job uncertainties that their parents have experienced over the years and find India a relatively safer option. The emergence of India as a destination of choice to work in is borne out by the fact that several surveys undertaken in U.S. colleges, across ethnic communities, show India as a preferred destination for internship and subsequent employment, especially in management streams. As India develops its R&D base, the same will be true for engineering and science streams, in times to come.

A similar debate was sparked around the same time i.e. 80s and 90s in China, when hordes of their best academic minds began moving to the U.S. for higher studies. Like India, China too is experiencing reverse brain drain today with Chinese scientists, doctors, professors and technicians preferring to move back to China. Part of the reason has been China’s success in building world class universities and research institutions and now Chinese communities living overseas are moving back in larger numbers and China is gaining tremendously from the knowledge and experience that they are bringing back.

Life comes a full circle’ is an old saying and finds resonance here, in the context of ‘reverse brain drain’. In the earlier years, many of those who stayed back in India or didn’t get an opportunity to move overseas often accused those who managed to go for being unpatriotic, especially when the country needed the services of the best available minds. But today, India is reaping the benefits of that migration as there has been a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience and investment transfer with their returning, a process that remains ongoing.

In fact, with greater number of American and other western students opting to study and preferably work in emerging markets like India and China, the debate on ‘brain drain’ has now started in their countries. Life indeed has come a full circle!


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