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The Great Indian Brain Drain

By Vidya Subramanian

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By Vidya Subramanian

Read Time

What is the Great Indian Brain Drain phenomenon? brain drain

India has emerged as a preferred investment destination over the last two decades.  One of the key drivers for this preference is the availability of skilled workface at competitive prices. This puts India at a position of continuous growth even as the world is facing a huge economic crisis. But at the same time, according to the Indian External Affairs Ministry, every year 2.5 million Indians migrate overseas, making Indians the world’s largest overseas diaspora. According to government data, over 1.6 million people have relinquished their Indian citizenship since 2011 leading to loss of billions in tax revenue for India. This phenomenon is being referred to as the Great Indian Brain Drain.

Many Indians have friends or family living overseas and they share stories with their families back in India of how their lives have changed for better. The infrastructure, social welfare, healthcare, equitable pay, quality of life and so on. These stories have surely planted seeds in the minds of many young Indians, who have made migrating overseas their life’s biggest dream. This is not to say that there are no horror stories. There are several stories of racial discrimination and micro aggressions at the workplace. Yet, several Indians continue to want to work overseas.

Through this article, let’s explore some of the obvious reasons and also the underlying cultural reasons to better understand why so many Indians continue to migrate overseas. Let’s also consider what Indian companies can do, if not already, to attract and retain talent.

Obvious Reasons

  • Education: One of the top-most reasons for young students moving out of India, as the current education system is not one that prepares them for facing the challenges of a globalized world. Most specifically, courses are quite rigid and not innovative. Therefore, many students and their parents make the decision for overseas education when they are in high school and they start working towards this goal.
  • Equitable employment for skilled workforce: Everyone wants to be paid or rewarded for their efforts and talent. Higher remuneration along with welfare of the family, such as healthcare and education that are either free or available at a reasonable price are too good to refuse.

Underlying Reasons

Having stated the primary driving factors, we need to think about some of the deeper aspects of Indian culture that are related to the Brain Drain phenomenon.

  • The British Rule: While the colonization disrupted the traditional systems in India, it brought several reforms that radically changed Indian culture, such as the ideologies of Liberty, Equality, Freedom, Human Rights etc. When English language was introduced, Indian society was also exposed to western literature and art that inspired new ways of thinking and being. Industrialization meant that the indigenous agricultural industry couldn’t survive. The policies and reforms pushed the labourers into a vicious cycle of debt, poverty and unemployment. The idea of modernization, new employment opportunities, the importance of English education were now set in the Indian mindset.


  • Westernization of Indian Culture: Introduction of sophistication in food, dressing, social behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg. Deep rooted traditional values such as joint family, arranged marriages, tolerance, hospitality, defining success as living a life of contentment have all changed too.

The conservative Indians consider the western influence as a negative phenomenon. However, for the middle class and the rich the western way of life opened a new worldview. They began to dream a life that would be bigger and better than the one they had. This led to a rise in materialism and consumerism in India. There is social inequality and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Many have abandoned the traditional practices in favour of western ones. Indulging in international cuisines, appreciating pop culture, following international fashion brands and such led to a natural neglect of the ancient Indian wisdom, art and traditions.

When some of the Indian practices such as Yoga or eating plant-based food were embraced by Westerners, they suddenly became more acceptable in India. We seem to need a ‘stamp of approval’ from the Western world. This is the impact of colonization, which instilled an ideology of perceived superiority in cultures and a loss of self-cultural identify. If it is western, it must be better. Working overseas is also perceived as a ‘feather in the cap’ for most Indians, a significant achievement.

  • Mindset of the millennials: Nearly half of India’s population is young, under 25 years. We know that millennials have different mindsets from their predecessors. They are more accepting of other cultures. They are flexible, work with new people, places and situations. They do not wish to be tied down to rigid rules and want to experience freedom, gender equality and social acceptance. According to Great Place to Work surveys, the top 5 things that millennials want at the workplace are:
    • Purpose
    • Clear expectations from management
    • Fair pay
    • Profit sharing
    • Work-life balance

Millenials at work

What the millennials want from their workplace is usually found in Western companies. Those who have worked in India or with India, will know that fair pay and profit sharing and not easy conversations for an employee to have with their employer.

Indians are very hierarchical and find it extremely inappropriate to bring up conversations on pay and profits. Also, communication from management on the purpose and expectations are also often indirect and contextual. Needless to say, prioritizing personal life over work rarely happens as Indians struggle to be direct or say ‘No’ in fear of how they may be perceived by their superiors. Even though, things have changed over the years, especially with multi-national companies in India, there are still those deep-rooted Indian values that conflict at the workplace, often leading to job dissatisfaction.

How can Indian companies attract and retain talent?

Having explored these reasons, we know that the Great Indian Brain Drain will continue. However, this drain of intellectual and highly skilled workforce does impact the Indian economy in the long-term. In 2015, the Indian Government initiated a National Skill Development Mission with a mission statement that reads: ‘to rapidly scale upskill development efforts in India, by creating an end-end, outcome focused implementation framework, which aligns demands of the employers for a well-trained skilled workforce with aspirations of Indian citizens for sustainable livelihoods.’

This mission does have a strong focus on the education system, which if executed well, can provide students the quality of education they are looking for overseas. Governments do what they can in terms of policies and reforms. However, we know these are long term, take time to materialize and unfortunately, sometimes fail. But, what can Indian companies do in order to attract and retain talent?

  • Build a brand- Employees connect with a strong brand and feel a sense of pride
    • Focus on the marketing strategy and ensure that it talks to the needs of today’s working population.
    • Use social media, influencers, support a cause etc.
  • Company Culture -Invest in company culture and values and ensure that they align with today’s workforce.
    • Are they being compensated for what they do?
    • Do they have the opportunity to negotiate? Do they get stock options?
    • Do they have the freedom to disagree without fear of consequences?
    • Can they take time off to recharge and have the back-up and support systems in place for their deliverables?
    • Do they get new and interesting opportunities to work on and engage with different people and cultures?
    • Do they feel they are treated the same way as they would be if they were working overseas?
  • Invest in workforce
    • Provide learning opportunities – scholarships or executive programs with reputed international universities
    • Training programs to develop functional skills
    • Training programs that provide holistic development, such as cultural awareness training that help set them up for success globally.
    • Employee Resource Groups that help create a sense of belonging, inclusivity, diversity and loyalty.
    • Mental health and well-being programs and resources
    • Rewards and recognition programs

All of these recommendations are perhaps easier for multi-national companies based in India, as they tend to have a company culture aligned to the headquarters. However, execution by the local management to maintain the same level of employee experience is key.

For Indian companies, funding or budget allocation could be the potential problem in achieving these goals. There isn’t an easy way ever, nevertheless, companies need to start thinking about these best practices in order to be successful in the long term.

Global Business Culture helps numerous organizations with these types of challenges by helping them align their company culture with the strategic direction.

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