Brain Drain: The Great Indian Migration

What is causing the brain drain or the great Indian migration? Why are talented Indians choosing foreign lands over India? Read to know more.

What is Brain drain?

The brain drain is the migration of educated persons from one country to another.

Primary external brain drain occurs when human resources leave their country to go work overseas in developed countries such as Europe, North America, and Australia.

Secondary external brain drain occurs when human resources leave their country to go work elsewhere in the nearby region.

Internal brain drain occurs when human resources are not employed in the fields of their expertise in their own country or when human resources move from the public sector to the private sector or within a sector.

According to the recent information from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), more than six lakh Indians renounced their citizenship in the past five years. In 2021, till September 30 around 1,11,287 Indians have given up their citizenships.

In the past two decades, there has been a continuous outflow of Indians, except during the 2008 financial crisis and in 2020-21 due to Covid-19 related travel bans.

India has become a major exporter of healthcare workers to developed nations particularly to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Europe, and other English-speaking countries. As per OECD data, around 69,000 Indian-trained doctors worked in the UK, US, Canada, and Australia in 2017. In these four countries, 56,000 Indian-trained nurses were working in the same year. Hence, there is also large-scale migration of health workers from India.

Why are Indians emigrating?

Indian competence, linguistic prowess, and a higher level of education are a few of the attractions for countries, which have eased visa rules to attract talent. As the opportunities become scarcer here, the foreign countries are ever more aware of the multi-talented Indian engineers, doctors, and scientists with English language prowess as well.

The reasons for this brain drain can be substantiated into a few key categories-

Push factors for brain drain:

  1. Lack of higher education opportunities: The increasing cut-offs and legion of competitive exams make access to higher education difficult in India. Abroad, they have an advantage over students from other countries in terms of skills and knowledge.
  2. Lack of financial research support: India’s Gross domestic expenditure on research has stayed at 0.7% of the GDP for years. India has one of the lowest GERD/GDP ratios among the BRICS nations. So, the minds in R&D tend to migrate to other countries to continue their research.
  3. Lower-income: Developed countries offer better pay to sectors like health, research, IT, etc. Income is one of the main triggers of emigration from India.
  4. Non-recognition of talents: The chances of being recognized in one’s field are difficult in a populace this large and with conventions preferring the glamour world over academic talent; bright minds choose foreign countries where their work is appreciated more.

Pull factors for brain drain:

  1. Better standard of living: The developed countries provide better living standards, salaries, tax benefits, etc, which becomes a great attraction for emigration.
  2. Improved quality of life: It is unarguable that the facilities available abroad are yet to be matched with by developing countries, and hence till that level of life quality is achieved, migrations will continue.
  3. Societal pressure: Indian youth are becoming more liberal and personal with their life, and the society here is yet to come to terms with the kind of lifestyle. Hence, the pressure to live a certain way among the Indian society is curbing the freedom of choice of today’s youths, encouraging them to seek western countries where the society is more liberal non-interfering.
  4. Easy migration policies: The developed nations are easing migration policies to attract talents to boost their economy. They target Asians specifically to take up intellectual labour.
  5. Better remuneration: The better pay and living standard offered by developing countries is, of course, a foremost reason for emigration.

The effect of brain drain on the Indian health sector:

The emigration of health workers from India to GCC and western countries has been taking place for decades. And this is part of the reason for the shortage of nurses and doctors.

As per government reports, India has 1.7 nurses per 1,000 population and a doctor to patient ratio of 1:1,404 which is well below the WHO norm of three nurses per 1,000 population and a doctor to patient ratio of 1:1,100.

There are strong pull factors associated with the migration of healthcare workers, in terms of higher pay and better opportunities in the destination countries.

But the push factors are what often drive these workers to migrate abroad.

  • In the case of nurses in India, the low wages in private sectors, along with reduced opportunities in the public sector plays a big role in them seeking employment opportunities outside the country.
  • The lack of government investment in healthcare and delayed appointments to public health institutions act as a catalyst for such migration.

Developed countries were in desperate need of retaining their healthcare workers, so they adopted migrant-friendly policies during the beginning of the pandemic.

  • OECD countries exempted health professionals from a job offer from the travel bans.
  • Some countries processed visa applications of healthcare workers even during the lockdown period.
  • The UK has granted free one-year visa extensions to eligible overseas healthcare workers and their dependents whose visas were due to expire before October this year.
  • France has offered citizenship to frontline immigrant healthcare workers during the pandemic.

The Indian government’s policies to check brain drain do not provide long-term solutions, rather they are restrictive.

  • In 2014, they stopped issuing No Objection to Return to India (NORI)certificates to doctors migrating to the US.
  • The NORI certificate is a US government requirement for doctors who migrate to America on a J1 visa and seek to extend their stay beyond three years.
  • The government has included nurses in the Emigration Check Required (ECR) category. This move was taken to bring about transparency in nursing recruitment and reduce the exploitation of nurses in the destination countries.

The need of the hour is for increased investment in healthcare which has been evident throughout the pandemic. The 2020 Human Development Report shows that India has five hospital beds per 10,000 people which is one of the lowest in the world.

Increased investment in healthcare, especially in the public sector is essential as this would increase employment opportunities for health workers.

Related concepts: Brain Gain and Reverse Brain Drain

There are few positive outcomes of such emigrations too occasionally which can be summarised under Brain gain and Reverse brain drain theories.

Brain Gain:

  • The movement of skilled workers internationally represents brain gain for the countries that reap their skills.
  • The young population that goes abroad has a very limited skill set. They improve their skills abroad through higher education and job experience, so when they return, they bring back brainpower. Some label it as Brain Circulation also.
  • Then the internal migrations of the skilled and unskilled lot have resulted in the formation of major industrial / tech hubs.

Reverse Brain Drain:

  • When the professionals return to their home country after a few years of experience and open a business, join a research university, or work in an MNC in the home country, it is called “Reverse Brain Drain”.
  • Reverse brain drain occurs when human capital moves in reverse order from a more developed country to a less developed or rapidly developing country.
  • These migrants accumulate savings, also known as remittances, and develop skills abroad and use them in their home country.
  • India has a large diaspora scattered around the world. Indian skilled professionals who have been trained and based in other countries are returning home in increasing numbers to take advantage of the country’s positive economic growth and employment opportunities in the STEM field.
  • Returnees with good work experience and entrepreneurial skills are setting up successful start-ups with the added advantage of their global networks and links to international venture capitals.

Government’s stance on Brain drain:

India does not offer dual citizenship hence people seeking citizenship in other countries must give up their Indian passport. However, Indians who renounce citizenship can still apply for an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, which gives them the benefit of residing and even running a business in India.

The Indian government has a simple online process for citizenship renouncing, making it clear that they are much worried about the outflow of the talented population.

A reason for this is maybe the fact that the expatriates have become huge financial assets for India through remittances and investments. NRI remittances have been a major contributor to India’s forex receipts though motivated by personal gains.

Some schemes have been devised by the government to bring back Indian scientists like-

  • ‘The Ramanujan Fellowship, Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) Programme’ to encourage scientists and engineers of Indian origin from all over the world to take up scientific research positions in India, especially those scientists who want to return to India from abroad.
  • The Ramalingaswamy Fellowship, for providing a platform for scientists who are willing to return and work in India.
  • Vaishvik Bharatiya Vaigyanik (VAIBHAV) summit: Under this, Numerous overseas Indian-origin academicians and Indians participated to form ideas on innovative solutions to several challenges.
  • Scheme for Transformational and Advanced Research in Sciences (STARS), Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration (SPARC), and Impactful Policy Research in Social Science(IMPRESS) with the common objective to boost India-specific research in social and pure sciences.

Way forward:

India needs systematic changes to build an overall environment that would be beneficial for the talented enough to motivate them to stay in the country.

The government should focus on framing policies that promote circular migration and return migration. Like policies that incentivize professionals to return home after the completion of their training or studies would be welcomed.

India could also hold talks to frame bilateral agreements for a policy of “brain-share” between the sending and receiving countries.

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