Britain, and to a lesser extent the United States of America, began attracting Indian students for higher studies from the late 19th century. Almost all the stalwarts of the Indian freedom movement pursued higher studies abroad and returned to India to work. In 1888, in one of his first recorded speeches as a teenager about to depart for higher studies in England, Gandhi told his friends, ‘I hope that some of you will follow in my footsteps, and after you return from England you will work wholeheartedly for big reforms in India.’ By 1946, on the eve of Independence, his view on foreign education was slightly different. Asked if independent India should continue sending people abroad for studies, he replied.
No, not just now. I would advise her to send them there only after, say, 40 years . . . I repeat that they should go there only after they have reached maturity. Because, it is only when they have learnt to understand the good that is in their own culture that they will be able to truly appreciate and assimilate the best that England or America has to give them. Imagine a boy of seventeen, like myself, going to England—he will simply be submerged.
Gandhi could not have anticipated the developments in international migration and education in the second half of the 20th century. The steady trickle of circulating Indian students gave way to more permanent migration as both Britain and the USA loosened immigration restrictions placed on Indians. More significantly, doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists trained at leading higher education institutions in India, especially the newly set up Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), and began to migrate to the USA for further studies or work. In the 1960s and 70s, the cumulative stock of these emigrants stood at less than a 1,00,000 people. Four decades later, the annual flow figure had risen well over this number. This phenomenon of high-skilled emigration was dubbed the ‘brain drain’ and received close attention in the public discourse. Three centuries after a potential ‘brain drain’ was detected from Persia to India during the Mughal era, as noted in the first chapter, it would be India’s turn to supply brains to other parts of the world.
There were two aspects of the brain drain, linked with patriotism and public finances. The move abroad was seen by the elite, who didn’t move as an abdication of responsibility, as a step towards undertaking the ‘big reforms’ that India required and young Gandhi had talked about. For those who did move, the prospect of working in the best laboratories of the world and living in large homes, or enjoying a vastly improved standard of living overturned any patriotic sentiment that they may have harboured. The classic 2004 Indian movie, Swades, about an Indian project manager at NASA returning to produce electricity in villages, reflected the possibilities and the outliers, but not the general norm. What the Indian elite in America and Britain often missed was not the lack of involvement in India’s politics and development, but the absence of domestic help that they were routinely used to employing in India. ‘In America, we have to do everything on our own,’ is a common phrase heard even today in conversations of transnational families.
‘Brain drain’ was a major rallying cry in the 1970s and 80s because Indian students who went abroad did so after receiving subsidized education. It appeared as if India and many other countries were investing in training highly skilled professionals so that the USA could benefit from their talent. In the 1970s, Jagdish Bhagwati, a leading Indian economist, argued for ‘taxing the brain drain’ whereby emigrants paid income taxes into a fund that would be routed back to their home countries via the United Nations. Bhagwati himself had initially returned to India after his education abroad to teach in the 1960s but subsequently spent his career in the USA. His taxation proposal would go unheeded not because of operational complexities alone but also because the notion of ‘brain drain’ eventually gave way to that of brain circulation, brain bank and even brain gain by the first decade of the 21st century.
This turn of events occurred due to the tremendous success of highly skilled Indian emigrants and also because their continued links with India through economic and social remittances limited the negative fallouts of the brain drain. Economic remittances from these emigrants filled the foreign exchange coffers and grew to comprise an amount representing nearly 2 per cent of India’s GDP. The rapid growth of India’s IT and health sector enterprises was facilitated by close contacts with the latest developments occurring in the rich world via the high-skilled Indian diaspora. And most importantly, the very same educational institutions that sent their best and brightest outside India, successfully reached out to their overseas alumni for money, ideas and inspiration. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, is today a source of great inspiration for the students of IIT Kharagpur, his alma mater, just as Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, is for the students of IIM Calcutta and economists Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian are for the students of IIM Ahmedabad.
Public institutions and discourses have therefore moved away from ‘brain drain’ to addressing the best ways to connect with and leverage the success of the highly skilled Indian diaspora. This applies equally for the lesser known ‘brain drain’ that occurs within the borders of India. When educated Bihari civil servants and professionals work outside Bihar, they contribute not only towards other economies but also in inspiring others within Bihar to seek education so that they may themselves improve their lives. Any compulsions on them to serve Bihar exclusively would inevitably backfire. Indeed, as education levels improve in India, one can expect more high-skilled internal migration for higher studies and work, concentrated in a few urban centres. Restrictions on the migration of the highly skilled would be counter-productive and also reduce overall human welfare. As per one study, the ratio of patents filed by Indians in North America to that by Indians in India stood at a staggering 28,000:1. Clearly, the productivity of Indians is highly dependent on enabling environments, whose provision would reduce the outflow of brains or even lead to a return of brains. Until then, there is considerable truth in an adage attributed to a member of India’s Planning Commission that ‘a brain drain is better than a brain in a drain.’
There is, however, an alternative brain drain that is rarely talked about. This refers to the migration of high-skilled spouses, almost always women, who accompany the high-skilled migrant workers, but do not end up working for remuneration due to restrictions placed by families or visa regulations. Within India, this leads to a colossal under-utilization of talent as millions of female graduates forgo active professional careers upon their move to a new state or city, to look after children or the family. Outside India, visa restrictions on work for dependents can kill aspirations and dull the brains. In the USA, over a 1,00,000 Indian dependents live on the less-known H4 visa, known as the depression visa. Studies have shown how this brings about a loss of self-confidence and discomfort because of financial dependence on the spouse, even for remittances, and overall, retards professional careers due to the erosion of skills. In such cases, the American sitcom Desperate Housewives offers only partial relief to the brain pain.
Excerpted with permission from “India Moving” by Chinmay Tumbe, published by Penguin India.