For a long time, while I was preparing for competitive exams and college admissions, a favourite topic for application essays and Group Discussions tended to be around the subject of ‘Brain drain’. The term refers to the trend among Indian students, especially in the engineering field, but also to some extent in medicine and pure science, of leaving the country for higher education and then remaining there to pursue a career. Conventional wisdom had it that those who pursued this course were India’s best minds, and that by leaving the country they were depriving India of their skills and talents which, no doubt, we need more than the USA or wherever else their paths took them.
As time has passed, this thinking has been questioned. Firstly, the sheer volume of money sent by these expatriate Indians into our economy has kept our Balance of Payments manageable for decades. Significantly, a large volume of this money comes in the form of gifts, donations and family maintenance, which means it is not repatriable, nor is it sent to India to reap rent or interest, but a pure inflow.
Secondly, it can be argued that in the broader scheme of things, the primary responsibility of an individual is to himself or herself. A desire to move abroad is not necessarily a mercenary decision, it can often be about having an opportunity to realise your own potential in a way that India cannot, at present, provide.
Lastly, the achievements of an Indian, no matter where he is in the world, can and should reflect positively on the country, as indeed they often do. This is a more debatable proposition though, given that a number of Indians who have tasted success abroad have forsworn their roots.
To understand the issue holistically, it might be well to take a realistic understanding of where India is today. We are a nation of startling extremes; capable of sending a satellite into space, a probe on the moon, and still incapable of sending rapists and murderers to jail if they happen to be rich. Malnourishment still kills more Indians than terrorism, discrimination is still openly practised, but our priorities lie in building extravagant white elephants in the form of expressways and bullet trains. The problem here is of priorities and skills – India definitely needs healthcare professionals who can work at the grassroots level, civil engineers and architects who can work on urban planning and renewal and an army of finance and sales professionals to fuel our white-collar dreams.
At the same time, some of our finest theoretical scientists in the past have only been able to achieve their true potential after travelling abroad. From the mathematician Ramanujan to the physicist Bose, from Chandrashekaran to even an economist like Amartya Sen, many of India’s best have reached their fullest potential in the caring and conducive environment of a Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton, and their achievements have been monumental in their own right.
Ultimately it is for an individual to decide the best avenue for realising his or her potential. True genius belongs not to a narrow geographical construct, but to the world. In this global village of ours, the artistry of a Maria Kochetkova or Isabella Boylston is not confined to Russia or the United States any more than that of Sujata Mohapatra or Sonal Mansingh is confined to India. And so it goes for the arts and the sciences, disciplines that have always focussed on breaking down, rather than raising, walls and barriers.
So go abroad, if that is your destiny. Whether you do so for purely financial reasons or for with a more noble bent, what is important is to remember where you came from, and which country bore and nurtured you. It is a part of you, no matter where you go, and you are better off wearing your Indian-ness as a badge of honour than pretending to be whiter than whites. And always remember, there are many ways to serve your country beyond staying back and being a burden on its economy. Shackling your own potential due to a fake sense of nationalism can be as harmful as trying to escape your origins and be someone you are not. In the final analysis, we are defined not just by our nationality or our intelligence or our physical prowess, but whether we used our capabilities to the fullest, wherever that quest might take us.