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Why Obama has stoked India's Brain Drain

Reasons why Obama's impending relaxations in US immigration policies should be a cause for worry for Modi

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have unwittingly invited his greatest competitor as chief guest for the 2015 Republic Day parade.

The same day he exultantly tweeted that the US President had agreed to “grace the occasion”, as we are wont to say in India, US President Barack Obama announced a radical overhaul of immigration laws.

Almost overnight, an honoured guest has, quite unconsciously perhaps, thrown down a challenge for Modi in the high stakes race for global talent or Human Capital, if you will.

The clue to this lies in Obama’s prefatory remarks. “Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here,” he asked with his practised soaring rhetoric.

Mr Modi could ask the same questions in his aggressive thrust to deliver his millennial vision of achche din in ten years.

Right now, we know there’s no contest. Skilled and non-skilled Indians continue to tie their colours to mast of the Star Spangled Banner in ever-growing droves; few, if any, educated natural-born Americans opt to take an oath of allegiance to the tricolour.

The Brain Drain from India is such an established fact that it is mostly ignored these days. The reason it – and the impending relaxations in US immigration policies – should worry Modi is that almost 24 years after economic reform, the tide has not turned in India’s favour. A study in 2012, for instance, revealed that more than a third of India’s researchers head for the US, the highest among significant economies.

Losing our doctors, scientists and engineers to the developed world is bad enough. The problem is, India also loses a host of mid-level skilled people – nurses and labourers operating high-tech machinery, why even economists, academics and journalists! -- to not just the US and EU but to West and Southeast Asia too.

This leaves India with the absurd conundrum of having to import, say, Chinese labour for high-tech projects and relax PIO/OCI rules so that multinationals can parachute their Indian-origin executives to run subsidiaries here. And all this happens even as our unemployment rate stays well above the 2 per cent that our opaque national statistics suggest.

In a sense, the “skills debate” that is absorbing the corporate discourse right now is another side to the Brain Drain debate. But the sustained Brain Drain, which began in right earnest after the US relaxed immigration laws in 1965, just nine years after the first Indian Institute of Technology and four years after the first Indian Institute of Management came up, also points to the many other reasons India sucks as a place to study and work.

It starts with college admissions where ridiculous cut-offs, forcing potentially good students to choose between lower-run universities of doubtful provenance in India or an overseas education. Forget Ivy League, even seriously obscure US universities will do, on the assumption that American higher education, no matter from where, is like a BIS stamp on your CV. That, in turn, has a knock-on effect on the quality of our institutions of higher learning. As for skills training for workers suffers from that chronic Indian disease called governmental ennui.

Then let’s take quality of life in India, especially urban India, where skilled people mostly live. The list of negatives is so long it could outdo the Mahabharata. The short point is that there is no argument when it comes to deciding which countries are winning on this parameter.

To be fair, Modi had had an instinctive understanding of all this long before any other politician, and hopeful campaigns like Swachh Bharat, Smart Cities etc etc are all aimed turning India into a habitable place by global standards. It’s an ginormous by any standards.

So Obama’s relaxation of immigration laws will certainly dismay Republicans (wait for the eruptions shortly coming his way). It should alarm his Indian host for January 26 as well.

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First Published: Mon, November 24 2014. 08:51 IST