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Brain Drain is Now Much More a Brain Gain: Shashi Tharoor

Photo by Mubashra Siddiqui

One of the most recognized and respected Indians globally, Dr. Shashi Tharoor does not appear to have deliberately set out to charm audiences but nonetheless seems to effortlessly do so.

This was clearly visible when Dr. Tharoor recently spoke at the annual Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies at Emory University. Laced with wit and elegant prose, the lecture received a standing ovation. Indeed, fans continued to crowd him long after the event.

For those who have been following Dr. Tharoor’s long distinguished career, this may come as no surprise.

Dr. Tharoor was the official candidate of India for the succession to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006, and came a close second out of seven contenders in the race. He is also the award-winning author of nine books, as well as hundreds of articles, op-eds and book reviews in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and The Times of India.

At the Sheth Lecture, Dr. Tharoor also introduced his latest book “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: The Transformation of India in the 21st century,” one that has already received impressive reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, etc.

In an exclusive interview with NRI Pulse Dr. Tharoor spoke about the Indian economy, its strengths and weaknesses, his hopes for the country and finally, what the term “NRI” is all about!

According to the UNs Human Development Index - which looks beyond GDP to a broader definition of well-being to include health and education, India ranked pretty low at 128 in 2007. But at the same time, the GDP growth rate is increasing - at a steady rate of 8.5% per cent per year. The two numbers seem quite ironic and in essence mean - as stated in a prominent Indian newspaper - we are seeing high growth but low development. What do you think this mean in real terms when we talk about India's emergence?
That’s not quite the whole story. Progress is being made in pulling people out of poverty – about 1 percent a year, which is still 10 million people, but it’s clearly not enough. I have been arguing for some time that India needs to invest much more in education and basic health care so that we can equip our population to take advantage of the new opportunities available to Indians in the emerging India.

What do you think are the main factors that are bogging down India's economy at this stage? What are the problems that need immediate attention?
We need to work urgently on both the “hardware” and the “software” of development. The “hardware” is notably our woeful infrastructure – roads, ports, airports, power, water, sanitation facilities. The “software” is what it takes to build India’s human capital – notably education and health care – but also long-pending reforms in our legal system (to end the humungous backlog of cases tying down our courts), our labour laws (which are designed to protect the jobs of those who have them rather than create more jobs for the rest of Indians), and in agriculture (where crushing indebtedness has led us to a world record in farmer suicides).

What do you think is India's greatest resource - that is fundamentally going to boost its economic growth?
Our people – bright, innovative, hard-working, capable of achieving extraordinary things with limited means. We need to give them the education and the tools, remove the artificial constraints on their creative energies, and they will do almost anything. They have repeatedly proved this.

From what I understand, the title of your book mentions cell-phones as a symbol of this expanding growth - the transformation of India from a slow elephant to an agile tiger. Almost everybody today in India carries a cell phone. It’s cheap and affordable and now we are expecting to see a new car – again, more affordable than ever before at $ 2,500 by Tata Motors. What do you think the impact of this is going to be?

The most important impact is that it will enable families that are currently perching themselves four at a time on a scooter or motorcycle to travel more safely and in greater dignity and comfort. Of course the secondary impact is that it will clog our existing roads with more vehicles and our air with more emissions. The answer to that is to build more, better and wider roads, and to develop and implement environmental policies that will help all of us to breathe more easily.

Recently, many leading Indian companies have started making overseas acquisitions - Hindalco and Tata among them. Clearly, this shows that India is making its presence felt in the global economy. But what other impact do you think these acquisitions have - keeping in mind that in essence many of these companies are private? Any impact on the lay person and what does it mean for India's growth, i.e. are overseas acquisitions a right step forward?
They are certainly an indication of India’s global footprint and of the world-class quality of India’s managerial and entrepreneurial talent. They will also provide a larger stage for Indians to perform upon. But I do not see much direct impact within India itself, unless some of these newly-acquired foreign companies transfer their operations and therefore their jobs to Indian soil.

The H1B applications this year hit the legal cap – as usual pretty quickly. An increasing number of Indians keep applying. With the Indian economy being fairly steady and growing - and if in fact, an emerging power, why do you think people in fact want to move out of India? And how do you think this so called 'brain-drain' is going to impact India's economy?
The trend is matched by an opposite trend – of people returning to India from the US. I don’t think that individuals’ natural desire to improve their fortunes by coming to the US constitutes a net loss to India. If anything, many of the most successful Indians here have given back to India in terms of remittances, investments, time and expertise, and several are setting up companies at home, endowing educational institutions and supporting NGOs doing vital work in India. I would suggest that the brain drain is now much more a brain gain.

Referring back to the book again, it apparently also covers a variety of other smaller topics - important figures, an A-to-Z Indian index and from what I understand your rant about Indian cities and their name changing, i.e. Bombay to Mumbai and Bangalore to Bengaluru. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Why the rant?
Many of these essays began life as op-ed columns in the Indian press. The purpose of a columnist is to provoke thought and discussion, so sometimes one is tempted to state a point trenchantly in order to get a rise out of one’s readers. But I’m not sure any of my writing really qualifies as a rant!

Lastly, we are all curious to know - What are your current plans? What can we expect next from you?
I’m busy with my own work in the private sector, which is what pays the rent, my columns in the Times of India and the Hindu, and my charitable work – I’m on nearly 20 different boards, in the fields of education, culture, human rights and humanitarian action. I’m also struggling to find the time to write my share of a book I’ve agreed to co-author with Shahryar Khan of Pakistan on Indo-Pakistani cricket relations.

Is there anything I am missing? Anything you would like readers to be aware of - especially NRIs?
In my book India: from Midnight to the Millennium I asked whether “NRI” should stand for “Not Really Indian” or “Never Relinquished India” – because there’s a little bit of both in all of us Indians who live abroad. But today they have also become the “Now Required Indians”, actively sought after by the mother country for their expertise, resources and initiative. And because India itself is advancing and winning a great deal of attention from so many countries, these “global Indians” are basking in some of their homeland’s reflected glory as well.

Finally, I have a passionate desire to see India, in my lifetime, become a country that sets an example to the world in how to manage diversity and how to use democracy to the benefit of the teeming multitudes in our country who are still struggling to survive and fulfill their potential.


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