Brain Undrain: America’s Loss Is India’s Gain

by Shreyasi Singh
- India -

The weakening global economy is helping reverse India’s much-lamented “brain drain” as hundreds of techies, scientists and corporate managers, primarily from the US, are homeward bound. India’s booming economy has aided this influx. Its average 8% annual growth over the last decade has opened floodgates of opportunities, ambitions and ideas.

As part of Indian IT giant Infosys’ corporate marketing team in Bangalore, 31-year-old Mahesh Ravi worked directly with the firm’s famous founders N R Narayan Murthy and Nandan Nilekani.

An exciting, well-paying job on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley might have been an eventuality for Mahesh after completing the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, Finance and Strategic Management from the prestigious University of Pennsylvania. But instead, Mahesh moved back to India in 2003 after 14 years in the US, Japan, Russia and Germany to manage Infosys’ engagement with the World Economic Forum.

“The wave of the future is here in India, in China, in Asia,” he explains. “There is so much to be done here. I doubt if I could have worked directly with the founders of such a large firm in the US.”

Mahesh is part of a new, fast-growing demographic in India’s big metro cities - that of Indians returning home after years in a foreign country amassing Ivy League degrees, technical prowess and professional accomplishments.

Vivek Wadhwa, a senior research associate at the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and executive-in-residence at Duke University, corroborates the trend in his oft-quoted report America's Loss is the World's Gain. Wadhwa warns that the US is headed for a massive reverse brain drain and estimates about 100,000 skilled Indians will come home in the next five years.

“I had peaked in my job profile. I either had to move to a bigger company or set up something of my own. I could not do that in the US. I would have needed too much capital. And, for tech outsourcing, the buzz was in India. So I took the plunge,” says Peeyush Dayal, a computer science graduate from Portland State University, who moved to India with his wife, Ritu and four-year-old son Pranay after 22 years of living in the US. Peeyush and Ritu also wanted to be closer to their parents and enable their sons, Pranay and Aryan, to enjoy their large, close-knit extended family.

Wadhwa’s report confirms family considerations are strong magnets for returnees to India and China. To be part of their native social fabric and to be able to care better for aging parents are often incentives as strong as professional aspirations.

It also helps that India has changed tremendously. Its big cities now offer all the comforts and trappings of the modern, developed world – swanky shopping malls, gated communities, unprecedented purchasing power, a heightened more accepted sense of individuality, and upward social mobility.

But there are challenges, and many who have returned offer a staple piece of advice for those mulling over a similar change. “You have to change your mind set. You can’t compare two different things, two different worlds,” warns Shimona Shahi Rana, a 35-year-old Columbia University graduate who moved back in 2007 with her fiancée Himmat.

The economic loss for America is tough to quantify. Certainly, the US’ most dynamic industry, high technology, will suffer more than just a hiccup as most returnees are from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. For India, however, the reverse drain will undoubtedly sharpen innovation.

Vivek Wadhwa’s report says immigrants founded 52% of Silicon Valley's technology companies (employing 450,000 workers in 2006) and contributed to more than 25% of American global patents. A staggering 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs are immigrants. A chipping away at these statistics will certainly have long-term consequences for America’s economic health.

There are also worries that the mild, but definite tilt towards protectionism in the US and the huge immigration backlog - both supposedly aimed at helping American economy - will have a negative impact.

Architect and graphics designer Madhumita Nandi Srivastava agrees there is little thrill in chasing the visa. She graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the famous Parson School of Design, but returned to India in 2004 after six years in the US.

“I have the freedom of choice here. I don’t need to hang on to a job because I need the visa status it provides me,” she says. “As a designer, I value creative freedom. I could not have worked for myself in the US.”

In the middle of a long, exhaustive, bureaucratic paper trail to get her practical training visa extended, she met an old friend who was moving back to India, and was full of optimism. “As we were talking, I made up my mind. I wanted to come back. The visa just didn’t make sense anymore.”

Five years later she says she does miss New York, but nothing beats being home.

About the Author
Shreyasi Singh is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India. After graduating in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, Delhi, Shreyasi worked as a correspondent and input editor in mainstream Indian news networks for six years. After having her son, Agastya, she decided to focus on her two loves – writing and being a hands-on mother.
She now writes regularly for Civil Society, an independent monthly magazine that profiles social change leaders and social entreprenuers from across India. Her feature articles on emerging trends in Indian society have also been broadcast across South East Asia on Radio Singapore International. Shreyasi finds the process of writing fascinating - how some thoughts, a few conversations, an empty word document, and deft fingers can create a little slice of history.
Shreyasi enjoys travelling and reading, and hopes to someday write a book.

5 comments on “Brain Undrain: America’s Loss Is India’s Gain
  1. parwatisingari says:

    shreyasi, sorry to disagree it is not the brain-drain that is happening but the labor strain for those are returning or not flying the coup are the mediocere, blue collared labor force.

  2. lesley says:

    The global crisis has indeed made many do a rethink and even in Kolkata we have some doctors and engineers coming back. I wouldn’t know whether its good of bad for India, but the youth are definitely not happy at this U-turn.

  3. Sarah Mac says:

    Lesley – are the youth upset because the returning professionals are taking their job opportunities?

  4. MHahn says:

    I have heard TV commentators lambast the use of highly-paid immigrants for such IT jobs – they say that these visa employees are stealing jobs that belong to Americans. I do see the point that Americans lose their jobs because it is so much cheaper to pay skilled overseas workers and believe that this is something to address in our trade agreements and tax structure. Yet the bottom line – the real truth that Americans refuse to admit – is that our educational standards have become laughable. By the time we get to college, we are already too far behind to catch up. (How many Asian immigrant kids do we see in remedial math?) Bill Gates himself has said that such visas are essential – that there really are no Americans qualified to do the work. Now, there is less motivation for them to come here. Excellent article!

  5. lesley says:

    The reason the youth are upset is that abroad was always looked upon by Indian’s as greener pastures and a lot of young people who were looking at jobs abroad are now feeling disappointed.

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