Some time last week an article by Vivek Wadhwa (written, no doubt, in the wake of President Obama's recent speech about immigration reform) caught my attention. As I read through this article and followed the link to a related previous article, also by Vivek Wadhwa, I was intrigued by the author's concerns about reverse brain drain. Numerous thoughts relating to immigration and brain drain started straining my brain (pardon the word play). So I brushed them all aside to the background recesses of my mind where I let them jostle with one another and take coherent shape on their own as I went about my daily routine, and decided to put them all down in a blog post over the weekend in one concentrated burst of effort. After all, that's what blogs are for, aren't they?
First, there's the issue that triggered it all off -- Mr Wadhwa's warning to his President that immigration reforms won't stop the reverse brain drain, and his alarm bells on how reverse brain drain to India and China is a very real threat to the American economy. Why, I wonder, would a Vivek Wadhwa be so concerned about reverse brain drain from the US to India as to write about it so often, when he himself was, in all likelihood, part of the original brain drain from India to the US? Didn't the original brain drain concern him then when he was an Indian, as much as the reverse brain drain concerns him now, as an American?
This is not a personal criticism. I don't know Mr Wadhwa and have nothing against him. I can safely speculate, though, that he is of Indian origin and presently a US citizen. It is possible (though unlikely, I think) that he was born and raised in the US and always was a US citizen. (I did 'google' his name and spend some time researching his past, but all I could come up with was that he graduated from a university in Australia. No information about schooling etc. readily available in the public domain.) But it is also possible (and more likely -- don't ask me why) that he was actually born and raised in India, as an Indian citizen, and went overseas as a student/ young adult. Strange, then, that he should write sentences like -- and I quote from his article:
"The reality is that [..] the poor and unskilled will still be here. But the educated and skilled professionals—who could be creating new jobs and making the U.S. more competitive—won’t be here. They will, instead, be boosting the economies of other countries."Where was he when that same reality prevailed "here"? (And by "here" I mean India, not the US.) In fact, isn't he one of those (to borrow his phrase) "educated and skilled professionals who could be creating new jobs and making India more competitive" who is, instead, boosting the economy of another country? At a personal level, I have no issues with Indians who've migrated to the US. People will go where opportunities abound, and that is most natural. Nothing wrong with that. Several of my best friends from school and college have migrated to the US and other Western countries. But they don't write articles like these -- expressing concern over reverse brain drain from the US to India. If anything, most of them find themselves on the horns of a dilemma, when it comes to the question of supporting US Govt. policies that affect the Indian economy in one way and the US economy in another.
The question of affiliation with the "old country" tends to come up quite often with my friends who've settled abroad (all first generation immigrants) and some of them are quick with preemptive statements like "Don't ask me whose side I would be on if India and America were at war -- that's too hypothetical and too melodramatic and too cliched a question". When I encounter this dodgy argument (or rather, foil to an anticipated argument) I turn around and ask them which team they would root for if India and America were pitted against each other as finalists in the World Cup -- a relatively less hypothetical and less dramatic question that puts many of the Indian Americans I know in a bit of a quandary. But when the same question is re-cast at the level of government policies -- on matters such as immigration, jobs going offshore etc., it becomes far less hypothetical, far more real, and a dilemma for most of my friends. After all, the two countries collaborate but also compete in the global arena. It's not about questioning their sense of patriotism to the US, it's just that the emotional connect with the country of origin is difficult to ignore completely.
Second, there's this laissez-faire attitude in India towards brain drain from India to the US over the last several decades (whose reversal Mr Wadhwa seems so concerned about). Right through my own childhood, adolescence and youth, I have been witness to the steady migration of some of our best and brightest, year after year, moving out from India and into the US and other lands of opportunity. As a nation, our body of talent has been bleeding 'from a thousand cuts' for several years now. Have we in India recognized this as a problem that needs to be solved? No. Instead we have developed an attitude that, to my mind, is best characterized by a tragic and grotesque blend of: (a) denial (b) rationalization and (c) resignation to fate. There's this standard line of reasoning about Indian talent migrating overseas -- in many cases even after receiving education that has been subsidized by the Indian tax payer (from institutions like the IITs), and this is how the argument unfolds, as more and more evidence of brain drain becomes obvious and undeniable:
Initially: Oh it's nothing much -- there's hardly any brain drain to talk about.
Followed by: Well, yes, quite a few good people do migrate, but look at how many people stay back here.
And then: OK, agreed that the ones who are staying back are doing so because they couldn't migrate; agreed that the good talent does migrate, but some day the trend will reverse and they will come back.
Later: Yes, quite a few of those who have come back to India, have again returned to the US in frustration after a year or two because they couldn't deal with the ground realities here. But the point is that many of them have stayed on.
Lastly (the final justification that to their mind clinches their side of the debate): Well, it's all for the greater good of the whole world, isn't it? Look at the big picture -- India is contributing to global progress, people of Indian origin are leading global businesses, are achieving eminence in academia and research, and are even at the forefront of global politics. We should be proud of that instead of complaining about brain drain!
And as an epilogue: In any case, we keep producing more and more people, so how does it matter that many of the talented people migrate?
You seldom hear anything along the lines of:
- Our systems are broken, we must fix the root causes of brain drain.
- We must have a strong resolve to retain our talent. At the very least, we should stop new outflows, even if we can't reverse old ones.
- We must attract the best minds from abroad, just like America does, and make that our competitive strategy.
Why is it that we hardly, if ever, hear people speak this language? I put this down to the mind-numbing fatalism that is hidden deep inside the Indian psyche when faced with monumental challenges. We find it easier to deny, and if denial doesn't work then our next response is reconciliation -- we accept graciously, for it is so ordained. This is what goes against my grain. And gives me a migraine. Apologies, again, for the play on words. My weak humour is but a poor attempt to mask the pain.
Third, there's the broader issue of talent migration and flow of human capital around the world. This is something that America should learn to deal with, if not actively promote. Up until now it was working in their favour -- they were able to attract the best talent from all over the world. The same thing that drove immigration into that country in the past will drive emigration out of that country in the future, when opportunities abound elsewhere. But even before that future happens, Americans must learn to accept what their President has been saying for quite some time now -- that prosperity does not happen in a vacuum, that steep inequities will only serve to be more divisive, and will disenfranchise large sections of the world population and increase global conflict between peoples and nations. This cannot be good for America, can it? On the other hand, qualified Americans going back to their countries of origin will help in bringing those countries up to a better standard of living and ensure a better quality of life for their former compatriots. This will eventually reduce conflict in different parts of the world and also reduce tensions between those parts of the world and the US.
Moreover, Americans who migrate to other parts of the world will act as cultural and knowledge ambassadors for America. They will draw on the intellectual capital that America has created within them, and will therefore replicate American values, institutions, policies, systems, technologies, management models, regulatory frameworks, etc. thus keeping America in a vanguard position and always ahead of the curve. If these other countries were to develop on their own, who knows -- they may even leapfrog over America some day! Don't you think, Mr Wadhwa, that you should warn your President about that?