The Big Indian Brain-Drain


02/08/2017 | 12 minutes

When Alok Sharma, Director of Product Marketing for Internet of Things decided to pursue his Masters in Computer Science in 1998, his choice to obtain an international degree was absolutely clear in his mind. Having acquired a Bachelors in Engineering from a reputed college in India and some work experience later, he explored his options in foreign land. He zeroed in on George Mason University in Virginia, United States. “USA offers some of the best programs in Engineering and the career opportunities here are endless.” says Alok. He maintains that while the option of retirement in India is always open, he considers US as the land of many opportunities and does not regret his decision. Alok is not the only one to not regret his decisions. On the contrary his success may have made it easy for others to consider the options of greener pastures in a foreign land. Over the years millions of young talented Indians have left the country in search of ‘better’ opportunities.

Indians are the largest community living abroad with the figure at 16 million in 2015 according to a UN survey on international migrant trends. This figure was at 6.7 million in 1990. While the rise in immigration is prominent here, what is of importance is the shift of talent pool to foreign countries. In 2015 the migration of Indian scientists and engineers saw a rise of 85% according to a report of the highest scientific body of the United States. This figure far outnumbers the immigration of scientists and engineers from China and Phillipines. As of 2013, 3.3% of US research workforce comprised on Indians. Considering these figures, India continues to be the single largest contributor of professional workforce in the US alone. According to an UN report, Indians make up for the largest diaspora in the world with 1.2 billion of them scattered around the globe, where United States, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and Canada are amongst the top 10 countries preferred by Indians. In fact according to statistics, Indians form 40% of the population in UAE.

So what are the various factors that lead Indians to foreign land and make it their homes? Why despite all promises by the government the number of people migrating to the US or other foreign lands has seen a steady rise since 2009? The figure is up by 225% between 2009-2015 where there has been a drop in total remittances from the 4.2% in 2008 to 3.2% in 2015, a factor that was until now shielded the critique of brain drain.

According to a report in February 2016, despite its growing economy and ranking 7th in terms of GDP, India ranks third for negative migration rate. This could be because India’s per capita income is amongst the lowest in the world putting 22% of the population below poverty line. Due to inadequate means of stable income and the increase in requirements of skilled labour abroad, unemployed and underemployed choose to migrate. This is also followed by the need of better standards of living. This especially holds true for the younger generation who are ready with educational qualifications but there are not enough jobs to match the supply. According to a data given by the Labour Bureau of Lok Sabha, there were only 1.36 lakhs jobs compared to the 12.56 lakhs in 2009. In fact a UNDP report suggests that India has been able to absorb only less than half of the new entrants in the labour market up till 2013. It further predicts a major job crisis in the next 35 years. What is more, when seen in the context of the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), average wages for professionals in academia, management or IT in the US is almost three times than their counterparts in India. Similarly the average monthly minimum wages in countries such as Europe, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Australia is over 1600 (USD) which is 850% more of the daily wages in India.

The migration trend has seen a shift from the prosperous states such as Kerala and Karnataka to states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Uttar Pradesh has been the top contributor with 2,30,000 migrating from the state alone. The trend shows most of these migrants constitute of unskilled or semi-skilled labour that work in the construction businesses. Unlike earlier trend where migration was a popular option only for qualified engineers and IT professionals, current trend indicates construction, manufacturing and retail as the professional options for 85% of Indian migrants especially to countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE. Despite the stories of exploitation at the hands of the employers, especially in the Middle East Region, the outflux has been increasing.

There is no denying that lack of better higher education and consequently lack of professional opportunities are driving most of the Indians away from their homeland. However, apart from the stark figures that point at the lack of opportunities and economical conditions, one cannot over look the social aspect that may contribute to the big decision of shifting base for Indians. Superstition in the name of religion and social cultures that reinforce the beliefs and limitations on the basis of class, caste and gender are big contraventions. The hardships of daily life in India are one of the major factors for the growing frustration, and this is irrespective of the economic status. The traffic mayhem, pollution and lack of public transport causes a general resentment in public. The daily struggles to go about the general chores of life in a chaotic manner has led many to consider quitting the city life for a quieter and slower life in smaller towns in India. But there are those who seek better facilities and standards of living that are available outside India.

“To break away from your zone of convenience to another land is not easy. But as a human being one is on the lookout for a 'better life'...from a social security, safety, overall quality of life perspective.” says Subashini Rajagopalan, a 40 year old Indian migrating to Australia.

Another aspect which is a stark realisation as soon as one hits the foreign ground is the relief from all the social and moral policing in the name of culture in Indian society. For instance, the existence of a single woman or mother is much easier in countries outside India. The cultural and social norms make it extremely difficult, especially for women to choose a way of life. It is mostly decided on the basis of what the society may think of the decisions. Comparatively, these women find western countries more accommodating towards the need to be single or single parenting. Similarly the safety aspects for women are real threats and pose a big restriction on what women can do or even wear. It is huge deterrent for most Indians living abroad when they consider coming back to India.


“Being a single parent I love to stay in America because there are so many like me in the States. I don't feel out of place and nobody bothers me . It is not a social stigma to be a single mom in USA.” says Anamika Gupta, a US citizen and an IT Program Management

Alok Sharma, “The girls love to visit India every year, but as far as living there permanently, that is not a likely possibility. This is their home, where they were born and raised. Moving to India will be quite an experience for them, a cultural shock. My wife also worries about the safety issues back home, which are always a deal breaker. All the incidents of violence against women and children in India are a nightmare for a parent. USA is relatively safer with a better systems in place to deter such crimes.”


Adding to the list of hardships in daily lives of Indians is the deep rooted corruption that is present in layers of dealings with government agencies. From grass root level to the high echelons, from dealing with corrupt clerks to the stories of financial embezzlement at the government level, all form an atmosphere of resentment. They may not be the primary reasons for considering migration but are definitely one of the reasons.


While one will debate if all that there is, is negative in India, one would say it is not. India was and is culturally one of the richest nations in the world. Amongst the popular destinations for tourism, India is well known for its diversity in culture, religion and food. It remains the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and despite the domestic challenges and economic inequality India is considered as one of the fastest developing nations in Asia. The land of Himalayas and Taj is somewhere struggling between its glorious past and its growing demands for better means of living. One of the largest democracies, India is known for its sophisticated urbanised culture in the past. But the glories of the past are not helping the country deal with the rising need of a fast paced economic growth. Brain drain, which leads to the country losing its most talented and educated workers, further impacts its struggle to establish itself as a leader in the region. Loss of revenue in taxes, potential entrepreneurs and skilled labour are some of the negatives of citizens migration from their homeland. Considering the data that suggests a continuous increase in migration and its impact on a growing economy such as India, generating lucrative opportunities along with better living conditions will have to be given a serious consideration. Migration in large populations is a leak that is draining India of its talent pool, slow and steady.


What are the factors that will result in slowing the outflow of citizens from India? Can only better job opportunities bring the talented resources back? Do you think rapid work on better living amenities and availability of better living standards will cause a reverse brain drain for India? Can social awareness, gender equality and safety for women affect decisions of leaving the country? Is government solely responsible for the living conditions in India? How can Indians as citizens contribute in making India an attractive country to live in? Mindmush welcomes the opinion of its readers and looks forward to their suggestions to stop the big leak of the precious talent pool in India.

Deepa Tripathi Chaturvedi