Brain Drain - Reversed

March 18, 2009

For many years commentators have lamented how India has lost its brightest brains to the west - the phenomenon lovingly referred to as the Brain Drain.

It appears that we are seeing another trend these days…the brains that had gotten drained seem to be heading back to India. There’s new phraseology in town: Reverse Brain Drain.

There’s a whole bunch of factors that seem to have contributed to this phenomenon.

India has made tremendous progress, expecially in the field of technology. Indian offices are engaged in cutting edge software development and boast of amenities comparable to anywhere else. Most, if not all major software companies have setup offshore development centers in India. Salaries have risen, and the gap between an Indian salary and a Silicon Valley salary has greatly diminished.

The Indian Elephant has finally started gaining momentum. India is Shining. The economy is doing well, and IT has led the way these past few years.

As the private sector in India now is the main source of wealth production, and it is not as murky and intervened by Indian government as it was before 1991 periods, the highly skilled professionals feel they can get their rewards for their talent and hard work in Indian private sector.[link]

On the other hand, immigration related issues are a constant hassle for Indians in the US.

Most immigrants work on the H1B visa which virtually ties their hands in terms of who they can work for, and what they can do. Besides, their spouses are not allowed to work as dependents, which is another big irritant. The H1B visa is valid for a total of six years, which is about how much time it takes to get the green card. Once you get a green card you are relatively free, and can do pretty much anything you want with your life. But the Green Card process in itself takes a long time, and employers abuse the fact that you need to stay with them for that much time to get as much out of you without providing the correspondent benefits.

Like many Indians, Girija Subramaniam is fed up. After earning a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia in 1998, she joined Texas Instruments as a test engineer. She wanted to stay in the United States, applied for permanent residency in 2002 and has been trapped in immigration limbo ever since. If she so much as accepts a promotion or, heaven forbid, starts her own company, she will lose her place in line. Frustrated, she has applied for fast-track Canadian permanent residency and expects to move north of the border by the end of the year.[link]

These issues are highlighted even more in the current times, with the government proposing that institutions receiving government bailout money cannot hire H1B workers. This is a big blow to the aspirations of people no more working in the financial industry, and from personal experience i know that a huge chunk of Wall Street employees are immigrants - Indian, Chines, Russian. You name the country.

Not just Wall Street. Across the country, there are loud voices against immigration and the government seems to be going into a protectionist mode. This would seem to be a knee jerk reaction to the economic crisis, given the often touted facts about the large percentage of Silicon valley startups that have been started by immigrants. Even in other professions, immigrant workers continue to innovate and contribute to the society and economy, in a big way.

Another strong motivation for some is the call of the country. There are families back home. There may be corruption. There may be power cuts, but there are no restrictions. There is no fear of going out of status. No fear of the immigration officer at the airport raising questions.

For whatever reason, people are heading back. A recent study tracked more than 1200 Indian and Chinese immigrants, and presented some interesting statistics on the reverse brain drain.

This study was conducted by Vivek Wadhwa and the Kaufman foundation, and concluded that over the past 20 years 50,000 immigrants have returned to India and China, each. Further, and more interestingly, it projected another 100,000 returning over the next 5 years.

Economics, not visa headaches, is the main engine of the shift, according to the two-year research project, which surveyed 1,203 Indian and Chinese workers who had studied or worked in the United States for a year or more before returning home. Growing demand for their skills and shining career opportunities back home were cited by 87 percent of the Chinese and 79 percent of the Indians as the major professional reason for returning. Most also cited the lure of being close to family and friends. [link]

This number is surprisingly high. I am surprised because there is the obvious downside of moving back to India. The standard of living is obviously not the same. The everyday struggles of life in poor, overpopulated, corrupt India are not for everyone.

I personally know people who moved back to India, and now curse themselves for it. I also know people who moved back, and are very happy and satisfied with their lives.

This begets the question.

For the India and Indians of today, what matters more? Is it being home with family? Dare i say, love for the nation? Or is it the money, infrastructure, cleanliness of a developed country?

For Indians working in India, would you still jump at the chance to work and live in the US? I know going onsite was the craze till a few years back.

For Indians working in the US, would you ever consider returning to India? What would it take?

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25 Responses to “ Brain Drain - Reversed ”

  1. Dinesh on March 18, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Very interesting post. Yes, Times are changing indeed and for different people the reason is different. We can only sit back and take a statistics and make a pie chart. I still believe people on the other side who had never been to US would like to come to US and work here for a while, and look at this vast country. For the people in the US already, it is their personal choice to stay back or go to India, Visa status permitting.

  2. Mysoul on March 18, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    I cant comment on this phenomenon from the “Work” POV or give you a Chinese perspective. I have seen and heard a lot of us leave and return to India. Some are very well adjusted and are happy others are regretful but stuck and still others opt for feet on two boats- They make quick visits on deputations and return Home. Most have a very good justification for the decision – we are Home, no one can kick us out of here or tell us we cant live here, we are there for our parents/elders, our kids will never feel like ABCD’s, will have a good grounding in our socio-cultural-religious norms and have an edge over others when it comes to education and the pay isn’t bad. I think its about what works for individual/family unit. Yes its tough, we have to relearn the everyday survival attitude of either using clout or bribes to get things done and readjust our bearings but We are resilient; we adapt and usually survive any decision we make, that’s Human Beings for you.

    Would I want to return? My heart screams YES! But my rational knows that wont happen unless something really drastic happens which leaves no other option but return. So what would I do? Make sure my ashes return. :)

  3. Chirag on March 18, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    @India has made tremendous progress, especially in the field of technology.
    I will disagree with you here as with an exception of 2-3 companies, India is NOT working on any cutting edge stuff. Most of of us are still struggling with maintaining COBOL and fox pro
    I am of the opinion that the sudden interest towards the ‘mother land’ is because of the political climate and economic downturn, leaving India and coming back both are result of the ulterior motives of the individual.

    @For the India and Indians of today, what matters more: Money and the developed country

    Going onsite is a craze ever since, still it is used in companies to retain employee and motivate them to work harder.

    Rumor has it, Infy had 2500 people moved back to India. and MR. BO, is will to let a few more Indian leave US.

    As my boss, says finally, most of the NRIs’ , will not be able to adjust to ‘Indianess’ and will move to countries like Australia or New zeland for the Standard of living and the salary packages.

  4. Poonam on March 18, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    @Chirag LOL You are right! When I resigned from my last organisation, onsite was doled out as a means to make me stay. Of course, I didnt fall for it. It is neither a well-paying option and rather a sardard in that project’s case. ;)

    I am very sure I want to be in India, onsite opportunity anywhere is ok for sometime if the project is great.

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  6. The Quirky Indian on March 19, 2009 at 12:49 am

    The answer is “the grass is always greener on the other side”….. :-)

    Quirky Indian

  7. saachi on March 19, 2009 at 12:59 am

    I can only speak for biological research in India.
    If one looks at international scientific journals, there has been an increase in good publications from India over the past ten years. There are good institutes here with good facilities.

    I am not saying that they are at par with the west, but if one tailors projects which will work well in the Indian context, then people are finding success.
    The grant situation from Governmental agencies in India has also improved.

    Although the office work culture is still the same it was ten years ago, more and more private, public partnerships in the research sector has improved the bureaucratic conditions slightly.

    We did come back because of our families and because the offer that we got would
    be the same even if we were in US (maybe this is different from the IT sector).

    Moreover I needed to settle in one place and was tired to moving around with jobs.

    Maybe its an adventure to experience India again after getting used to clean, rich surroundings and well behaved people but we did come across kindness and generosity in India that we did not experience in USA.

    We have personally experienced people, complete strangers who went all out to help us without any ulterior motive.

    So although there is poverty and such human conditions that you cant bear to see and there are more diseases and infections that one will have to fight with, India still is livable. Its not so bad once you make up your mind to adjust.

  8. Solilo on March 19, 2009 at 1:25 am

    As I said on another blog, everyone wants to stay at home. I mean be near their family but that is not how things work out in life. There are so many factors to consider. Patriotism cannot be measured by just staying in India. For me what works for my family is best for me. So as of now life is pretty well settled in US and with India visits every year and parents visiting here, things are going just fine.

    As for standard of living, I think it is the same in India too. The best part about living here is freedom :)

  9. Reema on March 19, 2009 at 2:00 am

    Good post. For me, being home with family or being close enough (like in same country) matters the most to me.

  10. Gargi Dixit on March 19, 2009 at 9:10 am

    India 75th in world’s best nations for business according to the Forbes list, that is now India has fallen deeper, its deteriorating.

    The forbes says

    “This is not a tally of economies with the highest gross domestic product growth, or lowest unemployment. The goal is to quantify for entrepreneurs and investors the often- qualified information about dynamic economies and what they would consider desirable conditions for business.”

    So, obviously India is not good nor it is going to be any better for Innovators, Entrepreneurs, creators and producers. Hence it is highly unlikely to observe any reverse brain drain.
    yet, some of the workers may return seeking jobs, but as the reality depicts, creating jobs in India is extremely difficult, thanks to the statism and government interference.

  11. gauri on March 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    As always, a very insightful one.

    //For the India and Indians of today, what matters more? Is it being home with family? Dare i say, love for the nation? Or is it the money, infrastructure, cleanliness of a developed country?//

    If it were black and white, the answer would be easy, wouldn’t it? Even then, I’d say the promise of a relatively more peaceful life. Fairer opportunities for their children. Infrastructure for sure - there’s plenty of money in India too. But what’s money without infrastrcture? What do you do with that money when you’re going to be stuck in traffic 5 hours daily to earn or spend it? When you’re hit on the road and there’s no 911? No electricity for hours?

    //For Indians working in the US, would you ever consider returning to India? What would it take?//
    For one, infrastructure. Politicians cleaning up their act. It’s not like the ones here are saints. But the corruption and bureaucracy are at a very different level - it doesn’t get in the way of every small thing that you set out to do. Tax money is mostly put to good use. Respect - basic respect, not the pedestal one - for other human beings. Healthcare…

    You don’t want me to make a post out of this comment :) Very nice read, AD.


  12. Kavi on March 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    A post that covers many aspects. Nice read. The Indian elephant has indeed arrived. And it needs to survive as it its main food ball, the US is out of gear !

    The ways of the world are strange. But the elephant has survived many years !

  13. vimmuuu on March 19, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    “Another strong motivation for some is the call of the country. There are families back home. There may be corruption. There may be power cuts, but there are no restrictions. There is no fear of going out of status. No fear of the immigration officer at the airport raising questions.” …..All my reasons summed up for coming back from my 6 months of work in the Middle east. Its India any time for me. I can move around anywhere without the fear of being banned. Theres more freedom to express our creativity here. and moreover, here in India, you can easily get away with having a tiff with your boss. LOL.

  14. amreekandesi on March 19, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    @Guys - Thanks for some very insightful comments. I see both points of views - the comfort of life in the US and the simplicity of life in India. There’s two sides to this coin, and both have their own merits/demerits.

    I personally feel that even if life is better in the US, it comes at a huge price.

    But then, nothing comes for free in life! You cant have it all!

  15. Philip on March 19, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Given a chance, i would go back to India. I know i wouldnt be paid as much as iam making outside India, but its still ok with me. Am ok with all the pollution, power cuts, corruption and stuff.

    I believe the protectionism that US is undertaking now coupled with its foolish H1-B visa restrictions will hit it hard in the years to come. As of now, China, India will reap the benefit. Of course remittances will reduce, but then the brains that these countries will gain will be worth the loss.

  16. Chirag on March 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    @nothing comes for free in life! - Agree :)
    @You cant have it all! - I know its true, but why :(

  17. Dev on March 20, 2009 at 7:29 am

    when you say that life is better in the US but it comes at a huge price, you are absolutely right. We all need to make some or the other sacrifices. At this juncture I remember Mr. Manmohan Singh’s speech in which he said - “You cant get everything in life”…So very true…

  18. amreekandesi on March 21, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    @Philip - I agree with your thoughts there. I too would return to India if an opportunity came my way. As for the US, it does need to rethink its immigration policy. Immigrants have done a lot for the country, and now they seem to be going into this protectionist mode. I guess we are going to see some changes happening soon.

    @Chirag - You cant have it all, because if you did, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the value of what you have!

    (I think its time for me to start a show on Aastha channel!)

    @Dev - Yes…life tends to be a tit-for-tat affair. You get something, and you lose something.

  19. amit on March 21, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Most of the people are returning back because the clients don’t have the money to afford the onsite teams. Hence all the operations are to be operated from offshore. That is one of the main reason why people have started returning in hoards.
    About payments, the onsite teams get much much more than their counterparts at offshore. Its almost triple.

  20. Vijay on March 22, 2009 at 3:08 am

    At the end of the day you have to do whats best for you. Moving back to India for me happened in the mid 90’s and the general reaction here was “Why the hell are you moving back” then I had already spent 10 years in the US and Singapore.

    Key is to accept India for what it is.. the roads, the infrastructure..everything…the other thing is to commit to being here and not want to go back at the slightest setback..I have a friend who is going back after 6 years of coming back because he feels that he is not giving his kids the right opportunities for training in things like soccer…

    Of course at the end of the day, you need to think about making a my case, the only reason I came back was an opportunity (at that time) that involved no difference in my pay packet (that really helps !!)

    Do I regret moving back.. No.. can things be better here.. definitely..

  21. Rahul on April 12, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Life in India….the same ..the very same India…where v stayed wid their nana nani…dada dadi…mummy papa…n many more frens n relatives..left india…to live our dreams…to be independent n free….but then Has not India changed in last 10 years??? from metro in delhi to golden quadrilateral….dont we miss the jalebi kachori…to servants to chauffer driven car…..Can v get that in US?? We left our parents to live our dream…but then arent v afraid that our children will leave us after a certain age…thanks to the american culture….jus a point of view!!!!

  22. sinoinvest on October 1, 2009 at 1:06 am

    Thank you for making it painless, pleasant and most of all hassle free! To be honest you cannot beat the services or the people that I have dealt with. brain drain is great. I don’t know what else to say.

  23. lc32 on December 22, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    like your article. Thanks for the sharing with us.

  24. Tony on May 9, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    The grass is greener on the other side - but India needs to be appreciated and applauded for its progressive and farsighted development where other countries have retsricted themselves with the red tape ‘syndrome’
    If I could speak the language then I would be there tomorrow!

  25. Sean Cummings on March 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    What an interesting phenomenon. Especially considering that the standard of living is lower in India. I wonder if the American government takes notice, and does more to retain their talented immigrants who want to contribute their skills. Both through updating immigration policies, and advancing their own industries.

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