Sanjaya Baru, in an Op-ed in the Indian Express, flogs the familiar horse about “brain drain” to death.
As a former Congress government adviser who spent his entire life in India, he comes from what can only be called the zero-sum game or “scarcity school” of economics.
In other words, he believes that the Indian brain trust, like any other resource, is finite, and our loss is America’s (and other countries') gain.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is remarkable that a personality of Dr. Baru’s intellect, erudition, experience and liberal credentials, including serving as the chief editor of Business Standard, has this massive blind spot when it comes to the contributions of Indians abroad.
Those of his ilk are always talking about how to reduce brain drain by the most illiberal of methods – expand the licence raj to cover emigration, use foreign exchange controls, exit taxes, and even exit visas to “control” and “manage” the fundamental desire of probably a majority of educated Indians to study or even move abroad.
Dr. Baru claims, “It is largely the workers in the Gulf region and some H1-B workers in the US who remit any money home”.
The statistics, however, are easy to check here and they show that around USD 37 billion came from the gulf, while USD 23 billion came from the US/Europe/Antipodes.
As someone who spent 25 years of my adult life in the USA and the UK and has actually re-established my base in India, I am well-placed to take on former bureaucrat Baru’s monumental misconceptions about our diaspora, and the motivations of Indians, to both educate, and go abroad.
As a child, the burning ambition that I had was something that came from my mother.
She always wanted me to become an IAS officer, and I imbibed this dream early.
But what happens to the average middle class Indian teen who has this dream?
In 2019, almost two million people applied for the IAS preliminary exam, of whom around 900,000 took the test.
The number of candidates selected for the IAS in the end?
One-hundred-and-eighty, of whom half were reserved for SC/ST.
In other words, of all the dreams and efforts of 2 million Indians, less than 200 were the winners.
Your chances of getting into the IAS are less than one in ten thousand.
But even as my mother retained her hope that I would aspire for the civil services, when the unexpected opportunity to send his son abroad arrived, my father grabbed it with both hands.
In every field we look, it is the same.
The odds of getting into IITs or any government medical college are around 1 in a 100.
What happens to the other 99 young minds? India has never been able to provide opportunities to all her young brains. And what about higher education research institutions in India that can provide growth and learning for IIT graduates.
How many of them are there outside of the meagre handful of IIMs?
Yet, everyone knows that all the seats in IITs and premier medical colleges are taken, every IAS batch is full, the postgraduate IIMs are completely filled with bright minds, and all the talent that India can absorb, it is already absorbing.
Where is the question of brain drain? All we are doing is exporting our brain surplus.
What else do you want to do with it?
Let it rot at home?
If our colleges and institutions of higher learning were empty, and our premier government jobs had vacancies because of a shortage of talent, certainly we can say there is a brain drain.
But are they?
In the job market, things are no different. India is a country where 120,000 mostly menial jobs in Indian Railways drew applications from 24 million people last year, a staggering number which is more than the entire Indian diaspora of 17 million Indians who live outside India.
Now, let’s talk about those pesky migrants who dared to leave India and caused this huge drain, shall we?
India received 80 billion dollars in remittances in 2019 from them, which is equivalent to 80 per cent of of the 102 billion dollars of foreign exchange we spent on imported petrol and diesel.
In other words, our economy is literally driven by the oil of remittances sent from the toil of Indians abroad.
The real drain to the country is, in fact, you and I sitting in India and consuming imported fuel.
Indian origin CEOs today run Google, Microsoft, Adobe, IBM and are in the C-Suites of pretty much all the biggest global companies.
These people are driving huge investment from their firms into India, providing high-end jobs for millions of Indians, and they would do even more if only the babus would allow them to operate with more freedom and less red tape.
There is light at the end of the tunnel though.
In 2014, the last year of Congress rule, India ranked 131 out of 210 countries in the World Bank global ranking of “ease of doing business”.
After five years of Narendra Modi’s government, India now ranked 63 in 2019, which is a phenomenal increase by any standards, given that this is a relative ranking and the whole world is also reforming.
And as it becomes easier to do business in India, Indians abroad will flock back to bring their skills, experience, and resources.
It is estimated that the combined output of the Indian diaspora abroad is comparable to the GDP of India itself.
We are clearly at the cusp of a massive investment boom as word spreads about the slow but steady reforms that will provide a wealth creation opportunity in India that will mirror China’s, albeit 30 years behind.
I was actually one of those people Dr. Baru loves to pick on, those overseas Indians who supported Modi in 2014.
Not only did I support him from afar, I actually moved to India to take part in the campaign, and after the stunning victory of the BJP, I established a base in India and have founded or invested in over two dozen startups.
My decision was driven by optimism and hope, but also by experience. I knew, from watching China’s rise as an fund manager in Boston, that India would be next.
Further, the arc of history, as well as the freedoms afforded by our democracy, mean that we are the tortoise that may start slow, but will not only defeat the Orwellian nightmare hare that is the Chinese polity, but our system will outlive theirs too, because a system built on individual freedom and voice is far more resilient than one built on reptilian emotions and driven by fear.
More than any interest in the outcome, I am driven by the journey, and India, for all its foibles, is a lot more fun and free place than China can ever hope to be.
It is now 2020. Modi’s reforms are slow but steady, and importantly, the people recognised his value by expanding his mandate just over a year ago.
Of course, I believe that he could move faster, and that we could much improve the quality and strength of his team to accelerate growth.
But there is no comparison between the venal mess presided over by the previous Prime Minister, and this government that is taking us into the 21st century with pride and a sense of aspiration at every strata of society.
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