Indians have always lamented their ‘weak’ passport, now rated less powerful than 83 others. The ‘red list’ travel bans that have gone up since the Covid second wave worsen the feeling. Countries like the US and UK have opened special windows for students though, with some well-heeled parents leaving no stone unturned to drop off their children on campus. Coming on top of reports and anecdotal evidence of an exodus of high net-worth individuals, and murmurs about everyone who can afford it preparing to send their child abroad, this has made ‘brain drain’ dinner table conversation once again.
Should India worry? No. The first big post-Independence wave of educated and/or well off Indians emigrating started in 1960s. India’s economic troubles began in late 1960s and carried on through the next decade and beyond, culminating in the crisis of early 1990s. But that happened because of Indian ‘socialism’, not because talented Indians left. An economic paradigm shift, with incomes rising and opportunities expanding, happened only because of policy reforms. Those reforms are also why even Covid-battered India is one of the most attractive destinations for foreign investment. Note that all through the post-reforms era, Indians continued to move abroad.
If there’s indeed a marked rise in Indians leaving the country, such an exodus is again unlikely to make a difference to India’s fortunes. What will make a difference is how GoI and states respond to the pandemic-induced economic downturn and when and how necessary structural reforms happen. Even if every Indian who can emigrate stays back, it’s policy and the politics of policy that will determine whether, over the next few years, India can shake off the tag of being a low-income country.
We have enough people to invest in. It’s the investment that’s lacking. Shockingly, there are still too few institutions of excellence and of professional studies, getting into ‘good’ Indian colleges is often harder than getting into US universities. No country has gone up the wealth ladder without widespread availability of both good public education and regular, skilled employment. Brain drain is not our problem, brain waste is.
And on Indians emigrating, let’s not forget that the Indian diaspora acts as a soft power multiplier for the country, as well as a network through which both ideas and investment arrive here. We must demand that the state serve its citizens, and not censure those who emigrate by saying citizens must serve the state.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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