Operation Ajay, launched by the Indian government for bringing back home Indian citizens stranded in Israel hot on the outbreak of Hamas outrage, isn’t the first such laudable initiative. It has happened before in Yemen and Ukraine for example. But the Ukrainian and Israeli rescue efforts are a grim reminder of the festering problem of the brain drain, involving as they did rescue predominantly of Indian students. It was the Indian students’ dovecotes that were fluttered when recently there was a diplomatic standoff between the Canadian Indian governments.
The annual spectacle of Indian students going abroad in droves for higher studies belies and mocks the smug claim of India being a Vishwaguru. To be sure IITs and IIMs shine bright on the Indian education firmament but they cater to and fulfil the aspirations of a minuscule section of the wannabes. Those left out are either left twiddling their thumbs, or go abroad. A few dejected ones sadly choose suicide. Many of them settle for run-of-the-mill commerce or arts courses though their sights were trained on and their hearts were in scientific and engineering pursuits.
My memory goes back to 2008 when my son proved that the child is indeed the father of the man. He said he was applying for the US universities and remonstrated with me to bestir myself and apply for his passport. Assuming an all-knowing air of smugness, I told him he should try Indian Institute of Science, our own iconic educational institution. It was then he gave a sermon that rudely woke me up. “Do you honestly believe I would be one of the fortunate few who would make it in the general (unreserved) category ?” Suitably chastened, I swung into action. Today he is a scientist in the US researching a cure for the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders.
Migrating abroad for higher studies unwittingly sows the seeds of the brain drain. They stay put there in search of employment and soon get it. With passage of time their home abroad becomes home away from home and becomes the cornucopian source of NRI remittance that has been giving FDI a run for its money. And yet some of the ignoramuses back home pass snide remarks against our NRI brethren. They are supposed to have abandoned their mother land!
Professor Abid Hussein, the former Indian ambassador to the US and a Planning Commission member in the VP Singh government, put it bluntly when he said, “It is better to have brain drain rather than be a brain in the drain.” It might have ruffled a lot of patriotic feathers but his remarks were a telling commentary on the brain-drain issue. Pray, why shouldn’t meritorious and aspiring youngsters seek their fortunes abroad? Why should they be mute witnesses to the ignominy of being rejected when they apply for seats in institutions of higher learning and excellence? And why should they settle for less when they can make money hand over fist abroad?
We tried our best to woo the Ivy League universities abroad to set up shop in India. However, if Harvard or MIT or Stanford set up branches across the globe, it would sooner than later spell the dilution of their brand value. If foreign brands generally prefer to export rather than set up manufacturing facilities in other countries, one can equally understand the reluctance of Ivy League foreign universities to condescend and descend on India. It is the scarcity value that keeps the gold prices high. Likewise, it is the fewer number of seats that makes students head for foreign Ivy League universities.
Ultimately it is the German model of industry-university interface that might work for India. Industry-run universities have the advantage of tailoring curriculum practically with the view to shaping budding youngsters for tomorrow’s needs. Hands-on training is also likely to be more meaningful in such a milieu with executives taking time off to wear teachers’ hats once in a while. If there is a conflict of interest in industrial houses also operating banks, there is no such conflict with them running educational institutions especially when a commitment is extracted from them to reserve 50% of the jobs for the in-house students, as it were. The salary pie too must be distributed democratically as opposed to the present CEO-centric approach to rewards of employment. In many Indian companies, it is the winner (read CEO) who takes it all in the salary sweepstakes.
Yes, the problem of brain drain starts with students seeking higher educational opportunities abroad. It disrupts families too with parents either reluctant or unable to rustle up educational loans, struggling to make periodic remittances for fees and sustenance especially with the INR remaining weak. Imagine a parent has to shell out ₹82 to get a greenback. Of course, the same parents send their blessings skyward when their wards a few years down remit money to their parents — a dollar begets them ₹80, given the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose attitude of our banks in the foreign exchange market. And it is the same parents who spend anxious hours worrying about their children caught in the crossfire abroad. Indeed, the Ukrainian and Israeli rescue operations also touched a facet of the larger malaise of the brain drain.
While the brain drain is bemoaned more in the context of white-collared youngsters, blue-collar workers’ migration is celebrated as enterprising and temporary, as they have to return as soon as for example the construction boom in the middle east is over.
S Murlidharan is a freelance columnist and writes on economics, business, legal and taxation issues