It was only recently when the social media giant Twitter appointed the Indian born Parag Agarwal as its new CEO, thereby adding his name to the growing list of Indian origin tech CEOs, the likes of which include Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, and IBM’s Arvind Krishna. Around the same time, Gita Gopinath was appointed as the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund and Leena Nair became the first female and youngest ever CEO of the French luxury fashion house, Chanel. While these events prompted widespread pride and applause among some Indians, there were some who debated their achievements with respect to their Indian roots, thus reviving the much heated discourse on the Great Indian Brain Drain. 

Brain drain or human capital flight is defined as a large emigration of individuals particularly with technical skills or knowledge, normally due to conflict, lack of opportunity, political instability, or health risks. Brain drain is also believed to have an economic cost, since emigrants usually take with them a fraction of the value of their training sponsored by the government. The term was coined by the Royal Society to describe the emigration of “scientists and technologists” to North America from post-war Europe. To put simply – brain drain broadly represents the de facto transfer of resources spent on imparting education and nurturing technical skills of the drained brain in question by the parent country to the country of the transfer.

The latest report by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs states that 6,00,000 Indians gave up their citizenship since 2016. The recent official estimates by the Indian Overseas Employment Corporation suggest that approximately 36,000 professionals, including doctors, engineers and teachers have migrated to other countries in the last 30 years. It must be noted that these numbers indicate only a small proportion of actual migration since most of the emigrants do not register.

When the term “brain drain” was coined in the 1960s the leaders of many newly independent countries used it to describe the frustration that resulted from the emigration of their talented youth to the western world. They accused these emigrants of being disloyal and claimed them to have no interest in the socio-economic development of their native country. 

While many Indians have still not detached themselves from such stigmas and sentiments, there are many who argue in the favor of these emigrants who choose to seek their fortune abroad. Multiple surveys suggest that money is not the only factor that influences this migration of talent. The health benefits, social security, easy migration policies, gender equality, quality of life and education offered by the developed countries are other crucial and decisive factors. 

According to the latest data shared by the Union Government in Parliament, over 163,000 Indians gave up their citizenship last year, the highest since 2015, with almost half of them choosing to become US citizens. In 2021, 163,370 Indians gave up their Indian passports. This number was 144,017 and 85,256 in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The Indian Constitution and citizenship laws forbid dual citizenship. 

The Expat Insider 2021 survey claims that about 59% of Indians working abroad relocated for their career, a much higher share than the global average (47%). Close to one-quarter (23%) found a job on their own, 19% were recruited internationally, and 14% were sent by their employer. Just 3% moved abroad to start their own business, which is still a slightly higher share than the global average of 2%. 

As per information received from Bureau of Immigration (BoI), the number of Indian students, who departed India for higher education in the current year, is 1,33,135 as on March 20, while there were 4,44,553 students in 2021 and 2,59,655 in 2020. Some of the key reasons behind so many Indian students choosing to study abroad include the state-of-the-art infrastructure offered by the universities in the developed countries, freedom to learn and innovate without the barrier of caste, creed, region and religion and the flexible academic programmes coupled with ample opportunity for research and practical experience. Sky rocketing, unachievable cut-offs and the failure of top tier Indian institutes to secure a place for themselves in the list of top global universities are yet other additions to the existing list of reasons behind the migration of Indian students. 

A recent study by the Association Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India estimated that the hundreds of thousands of Indian students now studying abroad cost India as much as US $17 billion a year in revenue. As a result, Indians end up contributing to their host country more than their home country. 

The impact of the brain drain can also be seen in the disturbing statistics released by the National Center for Biotechnology Information which states that with India being the world’s biggest exporter of doctors, there is one Indian doctor in the United States for every 1,325 Americans. However, there is only one Indian doctor in India for over 2,400 Indians.

Since the post pandemic era has changed how we think about economic growth, it has become even more urgent for the Indian policy makers to address the driving factors behind the great Indian brain drain, and foster an environment conducive to the growth of every Indian, thereby giving them more reasons to stay in their country than to leave it.