Indian Brain Drain

The Great Indian Brain Drain Accelerates

India is losing its best and brightest to the West, particularly to the United States, at an increasingly rapid pace. A 2023 study of the 1,000 top scorers in the 2010 entrance exams to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) — a network of prestigious institutions of higher learning based in 23 Indian cities — revealed the scale of the problem. Around 36% migrated abroad, and of the top 100 scorers, 62% left the country, according to a report in the science journal Nature. Nearly two-thirds of those leaving India are highly educated, having received academic or vocational training. This is the highest for any country, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Brain drain is defined as the loss of precious human capital of a nation. It is a “consequence of an education system designed for ‘selecting’ the best and brightest in an economy that is still too controlled and cannot create opportunities for its best and brightest”, according to Indian economist Shruti Rajagopalan. High-profile examples of India’s human capital loss include Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Sundar Pichai (Google), Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), Arvind Krishna (IBM) and Ajay Banga (World Bank).

Foreign Stem Workers In America

Foreign-Born STEM Workers in America. Source: American Immigration Council

A growing number of Indian students are going abroad for higher education each year and 90% of them never return home after completing their studies. In 2022, the number of Indian students leaving the country for higher education reached a six-year high of 770,000. A 2021 report estimated that around two million Indian students would be studying abroad by 2024.

Many developing countries are experiencing a brain drain. But India is losing its best brightest at a much faster rate than others. Some call it “The Great Indian Brain Drain”. This is the reason why Indians in the United States are the best educated and the highest earning group. In a recently published book titled “The Other One Percent”, authors Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh explain this phenomenon.

They write that the vast majority of Indians who migrate to the United States are from privileged backgrounds in terms of caste, class, and education. They have gone through “a triple selection” process that gave Indian-Americans a boost over typically poor and uneducated immigrants who come to the United States from other countries. The first two selections took place in India. As explained in the book: “The social system created a small pool of persons to receive higher education, who were urban, educated, and from high/dominant castes.” India’s examination system then selected individuals for specialized training in technical fields that also happened to be in demand in the United States. Kapur estimated that the Indian-American population is nine times more educated than individuals in the home country. Here’s an excerpt of it:

“A major focus of this book is on demonstrating and understanding the multiple selections that shaped the Indian-American population. These selections applied not only to education (that, in terms of attaining college degrees, made the India-born population three times more educated than that in the host country and nine times more educated than the home country’s population) but also to class and caste (favoring, by large margins, the “upper” and dominant classes and castes of India), profession (engineering, IT, and health care), and both the region of origin (Gujarati and Punjabi were overrepresented in the first two phases, and Telugu and Tamil in the third phase) and region of settlement (in specific metropolitan clusters in and around New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Houston and Dallas). In addition to direct selection is what we call the “selection+” advantage: we suggest that group characteristics or norms, such as the fact that Indians had the highest propensity to live in married-couple households of any major immigrant group, added to the advantages of being an already selected group. We show, in particular, how family norms were useful in keeping the Indian-American poverty level low (under 5 percent) and family income high (the highest in the United States). It is also likely that the selection process enabled, without explicitly intending to, the generation of high levels of social capital (through linguistic/ professional networks such as Gujarati entrepreneurs in the hotel industry, Telugu and Tamil workers in the IT industry, IIT engineers, Malayali nurses, Bengali academics, etc.)”

Doctor Brain Drain
Doctor Brain Drain. Source: Statista

Asian Americans are the best educated among all Americans of various races and ethnicities, including whites. Within Asian Americans, the Indians (three-quarters) have the highest educational attainment with at least a bachelor’s degree, followed by Koreans and Pakistanis (about 60% each).

Asian American Educational Attainment

Asian American Educational Achievement by Countries of Origin. Source: US Census

Asians, including Chinese/Taiwanese, Indians, and Pakistanis, tend to be concentrated in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Technology) fields where incomes are generally much higher than in other occupations.

As of 2019, there were 35,000 Pakistan-born STEM workers in the United States, according to the American Immigration Council. They included information technologists, software developers, engineers, and scientists. These figures do not include medical doctors and healthcare workers.

Foreign-born workers make up a growing share of America’s STEM workforce. As of 2019, foreign-born workers made up almost a quarter of all STEM workers in the country. This is a significant increase from 2000 when just 16.4% of the country’s STEM workforce was foreign-born. Between 2000 and 2019, the overall number of STEM workers in the United States increased by 44.5 percent, from 7.5 million to more than 10.8 million, according to the American Immigration Council.

Immigrant Visas To Us 2021

India and Pakistan Among Top 10 Countries Receiving US Immigrant Visas. Source: Visual Capitalist

India topped the top 10 list of foreign-born STEM workers with 721,000, followed by China (273,000), Mexico (119,000), Vietnam (100,000), Philippines (87,000), South Korea (64,000), Canada (56,000), Taiwan (53,000), Russia (45,000) and Pakistan (35,000). An enormous number of Indian STEM workers in the United States can at least partly be attributed to the fact that India’s “body shops” have mastered the art of gaming the US temporary work visa system. Last year, Indian nationals sponsored by “body shops” like Cognizant, Infosys, and TCS received 166,384 H1B visas for work in the United States. By comparison, only 1,107 Pakistanis were granted H1B visas in Fiscal Year 2022. In addition to H1B work visas, 9,300 Indian nationals and 7,200 Pakistani nationals received immigrant visas to settle in the United States as permanent residents in 2021.

In addition to 35,000 Pakistan-born STEM workers, there were 12,454 Pakistan-born and Pakistan-trained medical doctors practicing in the United States, making the South Asian nation the second largest source of medical doctors in America. Pakistan produced 157,102 STEM graduates last year, putting it among the world’s top dozen or so countries. About 43,000 of these graduates are in information technology (IT).

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