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Business Journal
Who Wants to Leave India?
Business Journal

Who Wants to Leave India?

A Q&A with Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D., Gallup Regional Director, Asia

For a decade or more, the world has looked to India with fear and hope: with fear because so many jobs have been outsourced to India; with hope because India generates so many well-educated workers who are badly needed by companies worldwide. But is that fear and hope justifiable? How many Indians really want to migrate? And what would this migration mean for India's present -- and future -- economy?

The private sector isn't generating enough jobs, and government jobs may not be appealing to the educated.

The answers may not be what the world expects. Gallup has studied worldwide migration patterns since 2006, producing a wealth of information that is important to the business community. Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D., one of Gallup's regional directors for Asia Pacific, has been analyzing the results, and what he's finding doesn't always sync up with traditional assumptions about Indian workers.

For instance, as Dr. Srinivasan discusses in the following conversation, a small percentage of Indians want to leave India -- but in a country of a billion people, that's a big number of potential migrants. And the people most likely to want to go aren't necessarily unskilled laborers with few job opportunities. Instead, they are more likely to be better educated and in the middle to upper socioeconomic levels. And India might not be all that worried about brain drain; the country may even be encouraging it as a release valve for the smart, ambitious, and stymied. But will this strategy work? Or could it cause economic damage that can reach across India's borders?

GMJ: According to Gallup's data, Indians who have secondary or higher education are the most likely to want to migrate permanently. Why is that?

Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D.: One explanation often provided for this phenomenon is a simple supply-demand mismatch, because many of the best educated workers can't get quality jobs in India. The private sector is not generating enough jobs, and government jobs may not be appealing to the educated. There is definitely some disenchantment with existing work conditions. Well-educated workers' aspirations are high, and they may believe that they can do better for themselves and their family outside the country because their education and skills are marketable.

Many people already know somebody with a similar skill set who has left to find a job in another country. That motivates the younger generation to think, "If I truly want to be like that person who left, I better start studying to get a job like that. Once I do that, I won't even think of options in India; I'll think about getting out."

GMJ: But a relatively small percentage of Indian adults -- 5% -- want to leave the country permanently.

Dr. Srinivasan: Right. But in a country with a population of more than a billion, that's still a lot people in absolute numbers.

GMJ: So if the ambitious, energetic, educated people who would like to leave actually did leave, what effect could that have on the Indian economy?

Dr. Srinivasan: The desire to leave and the reality of migrating are quite different things. The expression "If I had a chance, I would leave now" reflects aspirational needs, while the reality is that not everyone can migrate. But if everyone who wanted to leave actually did leave, India should be extremely worried. That's because the people who want to leave are exactly the kind of workers that India needs to keep to help with the country's development -- to help develop the economy, reduce poverty, create better governance, and stimulate entrepreneurship.

Certainly, the government would like these talented, educated people to stay; or, if nothing else, the government would like to make it easy for them to consider returning at some point, and it has taken action to address this issue. But I'm not sure that the government actually recognizes that it's a big problem.

GMJ: What do you mean?

Dr. Srinivasan: With the large population and the number of highly educated people that India's generating, I think the government feels that trying to curtail the outflow of educated Indians could create tensions within the country that the government might have a difficult time managing. In other words, the government sees migration as a safety valve. If people want to leave, especially educated people seeking better opportunities elsewhere, let them go -- but let's not lose touch with them. Perhaps migrants will feel the pull to come back, and they'll return with the skills, knowledge, and experiences that they have acquired overseas.

Whether conscious or otherwise, it's been a reasonably successful policy. That's because over the past decade or two, especially with the technology boom, many successful professionals in various fields have decided to come back to India to re-establish roots, and many of them are thriving in their respective fields.

Now, this wouldn't be the case if India was truly facing a permanent brain drain. If that were happening, people who leave the country would never come back. And this reinforces migrants' rationale for wanting to leave in the first place: conditions conducive for their own success and growth are better overseas. Then, when they see things in India have changed, they may feel the time is right for them to go back and take part in that change and to promote further growth and development.

The potential brain drain is really among the elite, the educated.

I think India is relying a lot on role models, especially people who left India in the sixties and seventies and came back. India is making them more visible, more prominent, whether it's in business or in government positions, because such people indicate that even if workers do leave, they should entertain the idea that leaving doesn't have to be permanent. They can come back to India because there's a future there.

GMJ: So India isn't all that concerned about brain drain?

Dr. Srinivasan: I don't think so. The government knows the number of Indian citizens leaving and the number coming back. What they don't know is what proportion of the larger citizenry would want to leave if they had the opportunity. And because there are limits to how many people actually leave, both based on demand -- conditions outside the country -- and supply -- migration control within the country -- the government hasn't had as much to be concerned about.

Now, if borders were open and labor mobility was completely free, if people could go anywhere they wanted to, it would be a different story. Even if you're only talking about the 5% of adults who want to leave, losing them all would pose a significant challenge, particularly when you look at the educated group. And the government knows that while many have expressed a desire to leave, they can't.

However, the downside of being complacent -- assuming it won't happen, so we don't have to do anything about it -- is that many of the people who want to leave but can't are essentially disengaged or unproductive, or they just haven't realized their true potential as employees or citizens, wherever they are. If India can't figure out how to channel them and make them feel that they are productive citizens, they won't be very useful within their organizations, the community, or the country. So from that perspective, the government should be actively thinking about how to create opportunities so the aspirational needs of its citizens can be met within India.

GMJ: So maybe brain drain is a bigger threat than India thinks?

Dr. Srinivasan: Perhaps. Let's look at it from another angle. Gallup has three indexes that measure migration patterns. The first is the Potential Net Migration Index, which looks at the general population, what proportion wants to leave versus what proportion wants to come in. The second is the Potential Net Youth Migration Index, which looks at the desire to migrate among people ages 15 to 29 and the potential net change to that population. The third, the Potential Net Brain Gain Index, looks only at educated people, those with "tertiary education," which is defined as four years of education beyond high school or a college degree.

In India, all three indexes are negative, which indicates a potential population loss. But the Potential Net Brain Gain Index, the one based on tertiary education, is significantly larger than the other two. This suggests that the best educated really want out, while fewer educated people want in. And if they really could leave, the implications of this could be potentially catastrophic for the Indian economy. There already is a war for talent -- for smart, intellectual, talented, educated people -- within the private sector in India. Added to that, my perception is that younger educated people are moving away from government employment to private sector employment. And even within the private sector, workers have a stronger preference for solid blue-chip companies.

Being concerned about these large negative numbers is, I think, maybe premature for several reasons. One, this is still an index reflecting desire. The international Office on Migration [IOM] estimates that the net migration rate for India for years 2010-2015 will be -0.2 per 1,000 population, which is quite low. Second, India has begun to adopt a more flexible approach to facilitating legal migration that is time bound (such as labor migration) rather than permanent. Finally, a large part of the population is still rural -- 65% to 70% -- and their opportunities outside the country are rather limited even if their desire is not.

So the potential brain drain is really among the elite, the educated. To that extent, we're talking about a fairly small population. It might be that a larger proportion of this group is interested in leaving but only expressing a desire at this point in time. Though the numbers look negative, India is still a huge country. Brain drain would be a lot more problematic in a smaller country.

GMJ: Of the people who would like to leave if they could, where do most of them want to go? To the United States or elsewhere?

Dr. Srinivasan: Our 2010 data show that around 30% want to go to the United States, while 8% want to go to the United Arab Emirates, and another 6% would like to go to the United Kingdom. As for the U.S., here are some reasons why Indians might find it an attractive destination: For one, there is the presence of a strong diaspora; there already are many successful Indians in the U.S. -- especially in the technology field -- who fuel the aspirations of the educated youth. Language is part of the equation too; if there was one thing that the British left as a legacy in India, it was the English language. And there's a lot of commonality between the United States and India in terms of sharing similar values of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the idea that if you work hard, you can succeed.

The desire to migrate is human and will always be driven by human needs.

Combine all of those elements with a demand for specific skill sets, and it is not surprising why the U.S. is a very attractive destination. In fact, if you look at the U.S. naturalization numbers for 2010, after Mexico, India has the largest number of individuals gaining U.S. citizenship. Even if you looked at the category of work-related migrants from India on legal permanent resident status in the U.S., it is the third largest country in terms of representation.

GMJ: Is anyone migrating to India?

Dr. Srinivasan: They are, mostly from neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The IOM reports that close to 3.5 million migrants from Bangladesh are living in India. The IOM's profile of migrants to India largely shows they consist of unskilled and semi-skilled people seeking work in specific sectors, such as transportation, construction, hospitality, and the like, and they create a niche for themselves just as immigrants do in every country.

Now, some things are changing. Outsourcing and other collaborations between companies in India and the West, primarily the U.S., have created opportunities for foreigners to go and temporarily work in India. Further, affordable education provided in some of the best technical and business schools in India with tie-ups to U.S. universities is attracting students on a tight budget who want to explore a new culture and get a good quality education. By no means are these substantial trends, as our latest figures on temporary migration for work or study show, but it is a beginning.

GMJ: Why study in India?

Dr. Srinivasan: It's cheaper, and there are some very high-quality institutions available, regardless of the field that you choose. And Indian universities are becoming more global in their curricula because they're collaborating with foreign institutions. That's not only good business as far as India is concerned, but it may also help Indians. They might think, "If many people from outside are coming here, why do I need to go somewhere else to get the same quality of education or to get the same kind of a job?" So policy officials may be hoping that perceptions about secondary and tertiary education might change as a result of increased demand both from within and outside the country, thereby reducing the desire for more Indians to migrate in the future.

GMJ: And will it have that effect?

Dr. Srinivasan: I don't know if it will have an immediate impact because going overseas always has had a cachet. Today you might find that most middle-class Indian families have at least one member living overseas or someone who has returned after spending considerable time overseas. It's a badge of honor for many, particularly when it comes to marriage season; having lived/worked/studied overseas increases the value of potential brides and grooms.

There's also plenty of evidence that migration can be a win/win if countries actively think about the benefits for both the donor and the recipient countries. The hope for many of the people working in the migration area is that eventually we'll see a borderless world where it is possible for people who truly qualify to be able to pick up their bags and go anywhere they want to go. As long as they can remain productive and support whatever initiative that they are indulging themselves in, it almost becomes a freedom for them to do what they want to do, including moving to another location.

GMJ: I wonder -- if that comes to pass -- if it will be driven by the business community.

Dr. Srinivasan: The business community in the U.S. has been pushing very hard for immigration reform because business success lies in being able to get the right resources at the right time. Sometimes those resources are people from another country. But sovereignty wins over all these kinds of arguments in the end. And migration, whatever is said and done, has a political angle to it. The desire to migrate, though, that's human and will always be driven by human needs.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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