S Murlidharan

Brain drain better than brain in the drain

S. Murlidharan | Updated on March 12, 2018

Clearing the cobwebs in higher education would remove the itch to go abroad. — K. K. Mustafah

The Health Ministry’s proposal to call upon doctors leaving India for the US to execute bonds, has revived the never-ending debates on brain drain. From the contours of the proposal, it appears the Government would ask the doctors to pay a hefty sum to compensate the huge subsidies that it footed while they studied in state-owned medical institutions here.

But why target us alone is the plaintive, albeit rational, plea of the doctors. After all, engineers inflict a double-whammy on the Government, if the subsidy argument were to be accepted, given that many of them avail of education at not one, but two indigenous Ivy League institutions – the IITs and the IIMs. The doctors have become the convenient whipping boys – the fall guys, as it were – only because they are supposed to serve the humanitarian cause more than anybody else. Touché!

Subsidy argument

Long ago, Abid Hussain, the erudite former Planning Commission member and Indian Ambassador to the US, said tongue firmly in cheek that it is better to have “brain drain” rather than “brain in the drain”.

The reaction to that ranged from the muted to one of outrage. But realists empathised. How can anyone cavil at a youngster taking off to an institution of learning, when his efforts to land a seat in his own country come a cropper in a corrupt and unequal system? And how can he be pilloried for taking up employment in an alien country, given that he has to pay back his education loan and returning home is, in any case, not an alluring prospect.

Even the misdirected subsidy argument loses some of its sting further if one factors in the generous remittances — in the last couple of years, NRI remittances have been a mainstay of India’s forex receipts. That such remittances are motivated by self-enrichment rather than enrichment of the nation is beside the point.

Mandatory Rural posting

People who make an issue of external brain drain forget that internal brain drain is more dangerous. Many of our own Ivy League engineers take up banking jobs with alacrity. And many end up selling soap. To be sure, they cannot be faulted for chasing the moolah any more than those who migrate abroad. Money ultimately beckons everybody. Moreover, our companies look askance at engineers and scientists, unless they arm themselves with a management degree. Thus armed, the desire to savour the air-conditioned comfort and power of head office is, too, strong to be ignored.

Not many are ready to sully their hands in the dust and grime of factories. The lack of a research culture in Indian companies is another dampener for those wanting to pursue such interests requiring an appropriate ambience.

That many bright young Indians excel in research labs in the US is a testimony to the philosophical refrain that Indians, who are perceived to be lousy in matters scientific, sparkle with lively contributions that go beyond seminar circuits and rarefied labs abroadlabs.

The problem of the shortage of doctors cannot be addressed by such ham-handed measures as bonds any more than by mandatorily pushing the mostly reluctant among them to rural areas. The Government has to double, even treble, the number of medical seats and wean away wannabe engineers to the more gruelling medical education.

Mandatory rural postings would be redundant in a milieu where cities are flooded with doctors. The glut situation would anyway willy-nilly take the surplus doctors to rural areas.

Clean the drain

Some ten years ago, NRIs started their return journey and the media hailed this as signalling a reverse brain drain. But in retrospect, it was just a flash in the pan. The exultation was premature because the Government could not maintain its reform momentum.

NRIs who get a taste of efficient administration on the ground in their day-to-day life, are put off by the reams of red tape in India and endemic corruption in all walks of life.

It is, thus, a chicken and egg conundrum. Will NRIs cleanse the system or will they return once the rot is stemmed? But if things improve dramatically on the economic front and the cobwebs in higher education get removed, there would be no itch to go abroad to pursue expensive higher education or the desire to rub shoulders with cultural aliens.

If subsidised education is the provocation for cavilling at the NRIs, then let us abolish subsidies. Certainly nobody will complain that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater because the Government ought to be subsidising only primary education.

Secondary education must be either afforded by the students or made affordable by banks by deferring repayment obligations. Philanthropists, too, can do their bit with scholarships that engender goodwill down the line.

(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant.)

Published on October 23, 2012

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