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The Great Brain Drain | Four factors why Indians are leaving the country for good

People don’t leave countries unless there is a compelling push or pull factor. Or both, as is often practically the case

July 26, 2022 / 11:23 AM IST
As per the Ministry of Home Affairs data, nearly 9.3 lakh people surrendered their Indian passports since 2015. (Representational image)

As per the Ministry of Home Affairs data, nearly 9.3 lakh people surrendered their Indian passports since 2015. (Representational image)

A few weeks back, I was watching the India vs England One-Day International match at the storied Lord’s, the home of cricket, when a young man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties occupied the seat next to mine. Perfunctory confabulations followed, and judging by the casual impertinence with which his companion spoke to some spectators nearby, it was quite apparent that they felt at home at Westminster.

“Are you a resident here or a visitor like me?”, I asked, which was basically a rhetorical enquiry. He sipped his rose wine, and said: “No, I moved here permanently two years ago. I am a jeweller by profession. The pollution in Delhi was unbearable, and the health infrastructure collapse during the pandemic gave us the heebie-jeebies. There was no way I was going to expose my young son to the nightmare of dengue and mindless traffic-jams.” He looked like a comfortably satiated businessman living the high life in a First World country. Strawberries and cream.

READ | Immigration Series: Best countries for expats in 2022

Returning from London to Mumbai, the British Airways flight was substantially overbooked. Perhaps people were trying to escape the unprecedented heat wave gripping Europe. But the hard data on Indians renouncing citizenship to live abroad that was released by the Ministry of Home Affairs demonstrated that there was a reverse outflow. It certainly has little to do with the renowned Indian summer, famous for its stifling, sweltering, scorching temperature.

So, what gives? Are we seeing the Great Brain Drain 2.0? More importantly, is it reversible, if that is indeed a recommended strategy?


First, let’s get one seminal fact straight — people don’t leave countries unless there is a compelling push or pull factor. Or both as is often practically the case. Besides the enormous financial cost of a global relocation, there is the larger emotional upheaval of being sequestered from close family bonds. Unlike the western world, India is not yet moulded in the culture of hyper-individualism or materialism, where people seek greener pastures in pursuit of either big green-bucks or their own passions. Family considerations have a disproportionately huge influence on personal career and business decisions.

Shifting overseas is a tectonic shift, quite literally. Thus, the startling data that nearly 9.3 lakh people surrendered their Indian passports since 2015 must worry us all. Is this a secular trend, or are we experiencing the beginnings of an unstoppable and exponentially rising migration?

There are four factors that become germane:

1) India still suffers from the Third World syndrome

Despite becoming one of the top three world economies (based on purchasing power parity index) and attracting FDI (foreign direct investment) of $83.57 billion in 2021-22, we still struggle for basic amenities: clean drinking water, public health infrastructure, efficient inter- and intra-city transport systems, educational architecture, organised traffic management, and assured delivery of government services.

I think the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was like a horrific nightmare has seriously wounded, if not altogether irretrievably damaged the confidence of many. That is why it is the First World countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Singapore, etc. that most are peregrinating to.

2) Ease of Doing Business is a myth

The fact that the World Bank actually scrapped the Ease of Doing Business ranking was because it was being rigged, it’s publicly known parameters subject to easy manipulation. In India, we suffer from bureaucratic cholesterol, the legacy of the pre-1991 days, still lingering in bits and parts. Even where red tape may have somewhat become more elastic, the fact is that Big Brother can still be arbitrary, ad hoc, and astronomically autocratic. India’s MSME sector has taken a huge avalanche-like hit, and for every hyped unicorn there are hundreds that struggle to get elementary business-friendly support. Any surprise that 23,000 dollar-denominated millionaires have left India between 2014 and 2018 alone? The average age of Indian settling abroad is 38 years; they are at the zenith of their entrepreneurial enterprise. That is an enormous loss of human capital.

3) Diminishing faith in institutional governance, and criminal justice system

Legal roadblocks, institutional harassment, cumbersome delays in closure of disputed cases, bribery and corruption, etc. have corroded business confidence besides frightening individuals who believe they are up against a tyrannical State power. Now although many of these grievous fault-lines have existed since time immemorial, they have exacerbated in recent times. The international terminal at the airport is the shortest route to salvation.

4) The rise of millennials and zillennials

Globally, the new, aware young, are upending the old social order. They are challenging the antediluvian status quo. The fact that India has only 43 percent in the working-age population that are employed is a manifestation of the unemployment catastrophe. Those who go to study abroad, therefore choose to remain there. But the young are also distressed about Climate Change, gender discrimination, sectarian warfare, authoritarian bullying, rising crime graph, and political radicalism. It is, therefore, hardly a surprise that the highest immigration exits are happening from China, Russia, and India, along with Iran, Qatar, and Hong Kong.

For sure, attractive destinations in the First World nations is a magnetic draw. But the real reason people are leaving is because they are losing hope in the land they grew up in….and love.
Sanjay Jha is former National Spokesperson of the Congress, and author of The Great Unravelling: India After 2014. Twitter: @JhaSanjay. Views are personal.
first published: Jul 26, 2022 11:23 am
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