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Moving On From ‘Brain Drain’, Colleges Are Now Leveraging The Success Of The Indian Diaspora

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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