Indian Diaspora in the United States: Brain Drain or Gain?

Author:   Anjali Sahay
Publisher:   Lexington Books
Reviewer:   Vinod Sartape
Designation:   Research Scholar, CSSS, JNU

Sahay Anjali. Indian Diaspora in the United States: Brain Drain or Gain?. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009, Pp. XII + 249. ISBN 978-0739121061

Indians settled in United States in the early years of nineteenth century although the size and impact of the small settlers did not make much impact either to the home or host country. Over the period, particularly in 1960s onwards, a new wave of Indian emigration came into existence. The pattern of this new emigration was quite distinct from the initial emigrations. Most of the emigrants were noticed as educated and professionals as doctors, engineers, teachers, etc. This phenomenon as termed by few social scientists is a ‘new Indian Diaspora’. The “brain drain” is one of the significant aspects emerged in the new diaspora though initially it did not create any impact especially on the countries of migration. However, after a few decades the brain drain phenomenon received a major attention from the sending and receiving countries as well and also became one of the major debate in the economics and policy in the 1970s.

In this context, Sahay has discussed the various dimensions of brain drain and brain gain vis a vis India and the United States. The book, Indian Diaspora in the United States: Brain Drain or Gain has been divided in to two parts; theoretical and historical background in the first part and empirical evidences in the second part. She argues that the brain drain is not an absolute loss or gain of human capital; it is rather a movement between distinct areas supposed to exchange the valuable experiences and sustain their economies (pp.viii). This argument, however, is relied on three positively tested hypotheses which are central to the book. First, using India as a source country, the benefits outweigh the cost of out-migration, with India as the highest remittances receiving country in the world with multifaceted connections in the Silicon Valley. Second, the leverage of the Indo-American community is as strong in terms of wealth and education. However, the possibility of this changing the asymmetrical interdependent relationship between Indian and the United states in favour of Indian remains at best a possibility in the long term. Third, a more active role played by the state in the sending country determines the level of return and non-return benefits (pp. ix). 

The author has described brain drain and brain gain with respect to “return” of the emigrants. For instance, “return” is not always accompanied by the benefits of expatriates precisely when comparatively there is a less remuneration and less living facilities provided by the home country. However, in rare cases the situation might be reversed when the home country provides more facilities to the emigrants in order to strengthen their profession or business. Therefore, “return” as author argues that it is quite difficult to locate with either “drain” or “gain” it is, in fact, relies on the policy factors of both the countries of origin and destination.

In the growing complexities between return and non-return there emerged a third category known as “diaspora options” which is likely to play a major role in the policy implementation in terms of migrations of highly qualified resources. The “brain circulation” has been referred as a “diaspora options” which differs from returns, in the sense that, it does not aim at the physical repatriation of the nationals living and working abroad (pp.07). However, this asymmetrical interdependence of one country over another through “brain circulation” as observed by the author, claims unequal distribution of economic resources since the power is located around the developed countries.

After providing a brief introduction to the discourse of brain drain, Sahay further moves towards other theoretical dimensions of brain drain that has been elaborated in the remaining chapters. The brain drain and laissez- faire economics has discussed in terms of disengagement, that is, if brain drain is seen as a result of integration into an international market in the professional skills then the only way of achieving a substantial impact on the drain is a disengagement from the market. Moreover, she also mentioned that some studies also focused on the supply-demand model and argues that the immigration of professionals from the third world is related to job vacancies, opportunities in other host countries, the flow of other immigrants, and the number of movers in the sending country under consideration (pp.23).

Sahay also explains two important framework of brain drain that is, “nationalist model” and “internationalist model”. The former claims that the human capital as indispensable to a country’s economic development and the loss of skilled personnel would affect the nation’s development. In other words, brain drain is a growing threat to the national development since experts are increasingly migrating to the developed countries.  This model strives to control the brain drain by suggesting developed countries to restrict immigration and also through other possible ways. The “internationalist model”, on the contrary, contends that the countries of migration exaggerate the problems of migration and development. The transfer of talents, as internationalists consider as mutually advantageous for both the sending as well as receiving countries. Moreover, the migration of educated professionals does not produce world losses but produces substantial increases in the world economic welfare (pp. 23-24).

In this context, the Author surprisingly marked the limited role of state in terms of confining immigration policies with regards to their own receiving countries. A less attention has been paid at the migration policies of sending countries. The illegal emigration is at the core of their policy formation but the fact, legal migration makes overwhelming transformation in their economy has rarely been considered as a matter of policy formation. The author empirically observed that the ‘immigration has been selective through a set of laws and regulations prefers legal migrants with a definitive skill set’ (pp.36) which makes no trouble for the developed countries to make a policy intervention for the third world countries.

Based on ‘dependency theory’ which draws broadly from Marxist thought, Sahay refers the works of Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein’s. She describes that “these theories frame migration in the context of a global economy, core-periphery relations, and the development of underdeveloped regions. It posits that the evolution of capitalism has given way to an international order composed of core industrialized countries and peripheral agrarian ones linked by uneven and asymmetrical relations, where the advancement of the former rests on the exploitation of the latter” (pp.42). The dependency theory, in this context, may be seen as one of the major factors through which asymmetries between two countries were rooted and reinforced through brain drain.   

Moving beyond the dependency theory, she also observed that there is a vast gap in the (diasporic) literature in terms of linking international migration and international relations. For instance, the migration studies reluctant to look beyond the issues like, notion of nation-state, refugee movement, illegal migration, legitimacy and citizenship, etc. The importance of brain drain taking place from the south to the north in economic terms is an empirical fact. Moreover, she pointed that the increasing migration of educated and professional ones both sending and receiving countries realized the importance of diaspora communities in their bilateral dealings and state-to-state interactions. "Migration thus", as author argues, "change the nature of power between two countries and becomes multidimensional, changing from actor to actor in specific issue areas. Diaspora communities of highly skilled people can be regarded as elements of a soft power for the sending country" (pp.44- 45). Therefore, technically, it is difficult to evaluate the costs and benefits of brain drain for sending and receiving countries (pp.48- 49).  

Furthermore, Sahay throws light on the issues like Indo-U.S. relations and their economic ties which play a crucial role in maintaining economic and political relations with each other. The Indian investment in United States is a growing phenomenon since a decade. The end of cold war resulted in increasing Indian population, especially in the information technology and other professions. In 1970s, Indians were small but influential minority holding the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the United States. However, although there is a history of disagreement over a wide range of issues, U.S. policies has a significant influence over India through bilateral relationships (pp.57-77).

In India, the out-migration could be seen as a logical consequence of growing imbalance between education and employment especially in IT sector. The huge amount of money spent on educating a doctor or an engineer would leave the country for better opportunities abroad due to lack of accommodation in high scale jobs at their home country. ‘The departure of these “brains” to the developed world represents a huge loss to the nation as a whole’ (pp.124). Although, the emigration from India is traditionally seen as a drain the recent emigration phenomenon has brought out major shift in the economy of the sending country. For instance, NRIs in sector like IT, health and education has a significant hold in contributing for country’s development (pp.121-153). 

The author also discussed about "soft power". It is also marked as a medium of interchanging and exchanging power relations between two countries. The soft power plays a significant role in favour of sending countries to balance the asymmetrical relationship between two countries. For instance, author argue that the “migration of the highly skilled people from Indian to United States can be effectively utilized as soft power for their country of origin, redefining notions of asymmetrical interdependence between them” (pp.157). Therefore, it is important to understand this relationship in interdependence from a viewpoint where asymmetries or dependence ‘could be a variable not a constant’ (pp.187). In this context, India could be seen as a soft power through its diaspora as a biggest instrument irrespective of its spiritualism, religion and culture (pp.184). There is a growing awareness  about the diaspora’s contribution towards investment flows, skills, knowledge, technology, etc. on one hand and the increasing demand of highly qualified Indians to industrially developed countries like U.S. on the other, has continued cultivate Indian diaspora (pp.195-212).

Last, but not the least, Sahay has given a brief summary of the chapters divided into two parts. She tried to link the theory and practical evidences: the cost and benefit analysis of brain drain is difficult in a given situation where the power relations are asymmetrically divided in both the countries of origin and destination. The benefits of the sending country undoubtedly outweigh the costs of Indian emigration. The power is multidimensional and differs from actor to actor on certain issues. For India, therefore, there is an opportunity and a hope to shift in a perception  where diaspora can work as soft power to harness the potential.

On the whole, Indian Diaspora in the United States: Brain Drain or Gain is a crucial work of Sahay offers significant debates over Indian diaspora in general and “brain drain” phenomenon in particular. She has discussed brain drain issue with different understandings. In the sense, she has cross cut the traditional literature that sustained a biased perception of brain drain. Few decades ago, similar view existed in the milieu of ‘old diaspora’ in relation to ‘indentured labour system’. Tinker (1974), argued that the indentured is nothing but a “new system of slavery”. This view undermined the significant changes that have brought out in the lives of majority population throughout the indentured period. Similar trend of argument has been seen in the light of recent migration especially, when it is considered as “brain drain”. However, the concept, “brain drain” or “gain” only measured in terms of economic and political standards. The socio-cultural dimension of Indian diaspora to United States is quite missing in the book which could have been otherwise given a new perspective to understand Indian diaspora with another lens. Nevertheless, Sahay’s work is an attempt to juxtapose the theoretical and practical aspects of Indian diaspora which gives significant insights to broaden the diasporic understandings and therefore, no student or scholar of diaspora should miss this book.

Vinod Sartape is a Ph.D scholar working on Diaspora issues at the Centre for Study of Social System, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  


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