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Brain drain has now become a brain gain

India has strong claims to early and successful advances in scientific and technological thought and practice. Today’s increasingly digital world depends on an Indian invention, that of zero or ‘shoonya’. While leadership in innovative thought somehow fell away for a couple of millennium, the cultural ethos, developed so early in India’s history, has allowed for our current advancements in science and technology.

In modern times, increasing recognition of the high quality of India’s scientific and technological talent has resulted in the country becoming the largest sourcing ground for the developed world, principally the USA. In the old days we called it ‘brain drain’ because it was the poor socio-economic and politico-administrative environment of the 70s and 80s that forced the exodus of our best talent to greener pastures. However, the reform process initiated by our current Prime Minister when he was the finance minister in 1991, has converted a liability into an asset. Some of our best brains, who spent years and decades around the world, honing their knowledge and skills are beginning to return to India and contribute to its growth and development. The ‘brain drain’ has now become a ‘brain gain’.

It is understood by those in the know that harnessing the power of technology is critical to this nation’s development in a sustainable manner. Technology enables qualitative healthcare at an affordable, advanced climate-friendly energy development and deployment for our still largely rural population and improved education across lower sections of society. As technology lies at the epicenter of agriculture, industry and services, it is time to push it to the mainstream of economic planning.

A country’s economic activity has an umbilical connection to the quality of its intellectual capital. We have the third largest higher education system in the world—it’s the tremendous qualitative variances that are a problem.

Western and Asian countries have grown across all four foundations of civilisation—social, economic, cultural and political, due to the development and proper utilisation of excellence in innovation, technological upgradation and research & development. India’s emergence as a global R&D hub is a process that began more than a decade ago. But we have oceans to cross.

Indian companies have faced criticism for a long time for their low level of investment in R&D, both in India and other parts of the world. This fact prevented them from becoming serious players in global markets. Despite major progress, India’s image, till recently, remained that of a third-world country which copies western products, aided by lax patent policies. As we start to change, we could take a leaf out of Japan’s book—they bettered the technological instruction! We need to do the same.

Fortunately, our reputation of being a leading centre for IT & BPO has led to our emergence as a global R&D location where multinationals such as Microsoft, Motorola, CA, Cisco, IBM, Google, etc. are beginning to do cutting-edge research. This has not remained constrained to just be IT players. Global giants in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and biotech, to name a few, are setting up ambitious R&D projects, in part to serve the Indian market, but also with an eye to delivering a new generation of products for the global market, faster and more economically.

This trend has also led to Indian entrepreneurs creating contract research firms that service global multinationals and created a new industry ‘Research Process Outsourcing’ or RPO which feeds the need for MNCs not only to ‘localise’ products for India but also to increase their competitiveness abroad and expand the range of offerings to their existing markets. This has created another opportunity for India to find its position on the global RD map.

All of this is having the impact of moving the country up the value chain in R&D and getting more integrated with what is happening globally. And this could not have happened at a better time. Some of the most innovative companies in the world are already beginning to emerge from Asia and most forecasts suggest that the fastest growth will come from the BRIC nations, led by India and even more so by China—unless they are surprised by strong democratic movements that recently occurred in North Africa.

Success of course creates its own problems. India Inc. is beginning to face serious shortages of high quality skilled manpower. Numerous human resource (HR) agencies provide their perspectives recommending strategies to overcome shortages by developing work models, collaborating with governments, education and individuals for skill development and imparting of training. Whichever combination of options we settle on, it must be interactive and have a good public-private partnership model.

I spoke of a brain drain in the beginning and alluded to a reverse process. To see highly skilled and qualified people return is most heartening as they can command jobs anywhere in the world. It truly brings home the opportunity that lies before us. We have to be careful not to throw it away by forgetting to encourage industry required skilled development.

Both industry and academia have recognised this and begun to come together to ensure that a set of industry ready professionals enter the R&D ecosystem every year. The government too is seized of the matter and various initiatives are under way to create many more world class, R&D focused universities. India has vast problems to solve. The country’s 80% people do not have a bank account, more than half do not have access to affordable healthcare, we have only a third of the teachers that we need and we have a huge leakage in our public distribution system. The answer to all these lies through technology and innovation. And fortunately, while we have these problems of a developing nation, we also have all the skills to solve them ourselves. Our legendary skills in IT, the emergence of world class entrepreneurs and a government that is now squarely placing its faith in technology and innovation are the best things that have happened to us in a long time. 

The progression of India from being enclosed in a cost arbitrage framework to breaking out into the high value add space is cause for celebration. And this celebration is not ours alone. Global multinationals which seeded a lot of high end R&D in India are beginning to reap the benefits of cutting edge innovation and products that serve them locally and globally. And the old entrepreneurial DNA of India has resurfaced with a vengeance with myriads of new start-ups that are seeking to stretch the boundaries in India and overseas creating new products and solutions and new markets.

India has always had the ‘potential’ to excel. What kept us back was the lack of capital, the right direction, collaboration between government, industry and academia and a policy framework conducive to long-term investment and growth. The great news is that this is now beginning to come together. And the even better news is that we now have a new breed of entrepreneurs, full of self belief and global aspirations, who are willing to step out and leverage the greatest opportunity that anyone could ever have had.

(Article copied from financial express)


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