April 18, 2012
Wall Street Journal: Rupa Subramanya
Finally, here's a good news story about India in the international media.
We've had months of gloomy talk about slowing growth, corruption, and a business climate not especially favorable to foreign investors, with the recent budget even managing to smuggle in a measure to tax foreign investors retroactively. But it seems that for at least one group of people, India is still the Promised Land.
A recent front page article in the New York Times documented the migration of second generation Americans back to their ancestral countries, including India, China, Brazil and Russia. India's faltering growth may be disappointing, but it's still much more rapid than the continued stagnation of the U.S. economy. In certain fields, at least there are still opportunities to be seized in India by those with a taste for adventure.
Labor economists call this kind of migration the "reverse brain drain." Ironically, the migrants are often the kids or sometimes grandkids of the original "brain drain," skilled workers and professionals who left India and other developing countries in the 1960s, '70s and '80s to seek opportunities in the booming U.S. economy. In fact, a more accurate term for the highly mobile skilled workers of today, favored by labor economists, is "brain circulation." These people are agile and will seek out opportunities wherever they exist. So if things don't work out in India, they might return to the U.S. or try their luck somewhere else.
This development is surely good, and a far cry from the days of the brain drain. In those days, it was common to bemoan the loss of talent from India and other developing countries, which further retarded their effort to catch up with the West. Some scholars even called for governments in the developing world to levy a tax on emigrants. And these weren't just left wing scholars, but respected and mainstream economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, who today is better known for his advocacy of globalization than for his earlier support for a tax on the brain drain.
But looking too closely at those privileged enough to be part of the brain circulation obscures the more fundamental fact that the vast majority of migrants are trying to leave poorer countries such as India to seek better lives in the U.S. and other rich countries. From India alone, the U.S. has received close to three million immigrants, almost 1% of the total population. Even more telling, India is also a major source of illegal immigration into the U.S. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there are almost a quarter of a million Indians living illegally in the U.S., a number which has doubled between 2000 and 2011. This is a sobering reality check for anyone tempted to romanticize the trend toward reverse migration.
Both economic and sociological factors determine the direction people want to move. From what I've observed, it's the circumstances of you or your family's departure that are likely to determine the likelihood of your return, whether you are a first or second generation immigrant. For the overwhelming majority of immigrants in the U.S., from India or elsewhere, leaving their home country meant an escape from poverty and deprivation. Often, the memories of hard times linger and are transmitted to the next generation. People who have left under such circumstances are reluctant to return, for obvious reasons.
I know a very successful surgeon of Indian origin in the U.S. who can barely stand to visit India for more than a week. Before moving to the U.S. in his teens, life for him played out in a village hut without running water or electricity. You can't blame him for not being enthusiastic about pursuing opportunities in India even if they existed. Likewise, there are second generation Indo-Americans who hear tales from their parents of how awful life in India was. This is bound to condition the way they see their ancestral home. These people aren't likely to move to India anytime soon.
So who are the folks moving back and how are they making it work here? We know there are opportunities, but how exactly do the successful migrants capitalize on them?
At least some of these first and second generation returnees, armed with Ivy League credentials and blue chip work experience, are moving under the auspices of multinational enterprises, such as investment banks, management consultancies, media groups, or nongovernment organizations. They have a built-in infrastructure (the bankers and consultants at least, with a company apartment, car, domestic help, and so on) and a ready-made social circle, which considerably smoothes the transition. Others have used wealth or networks developed when they were back in the U.S. to line up interesting or lucrative opportunities in India, whether in established companies or in starting new enterprises.
A third category comes from wealthy and privileged backgrounds here in India, which makes it easier to pursue opportunities, as well as lessen the psychological adjustment of moving from the U.S. to India. These privileged migrants are able to tap into old-time family connections in India, may live in inherited family properties, and belong to the "right" clubs, again thanks to a family legacy. As a bonus, some can even pronounce their Indian names correctly.
There are indeed opportunities in India, but it's hardly a cake-walk: you need the right package of connections to make them succeed. Those who make a successful transition to life in India tend to belong to one or more of these categories, sometimes all three. And, like the rest of us, they need reserves of patience and a good dose of luck. Genuine "prospectors," with a few bucks and a dream, but without an established network of one kind or another, are less likely to hack it in India. It doesn't make for a feel-good first page story, but that's the hard reality of making it here.
(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)