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Reasons why NRIs are returning to India – Reverse Brain Drain

Why NRIs return to India: Reverse Brain Drain


Not quite like the legendary denials of Hema Malini, but significantly close. This was the content of the calls I frantically received once I declared my intentions of going back to India, after having lived in the US for nearly a decade. Did you get fired? Will you be able to settle back in India? Where will you go for tacos?

All good questions but none so potent as to make me dissolve my resolve. But hey, don’t just trust my decision. I once predicted that Fun2shh-Dudes in the 10th Century would do much better than the other lame sounding movie, Munnabhai MBBS.

So why am I telling you this?

Well, like me, NRIs are now heading back more than they ever have. They call it a reverse brain drain. While brain drain literally brings up a very gory image from any old Ramsay brothers creations, it actually refers to the mass exodus of qualified high achievers to distant lands in search of better jobs and education.

Reverse brain drain, then, quite obviously refers to them hitting the reverse gear. We are going talk about the developments that are prompting our apnes from the other des to return back to their home, India.

To begin with, let’s just touch upon the reasons that led to the boom of the NRI population. Once upon a time, in 1790, there was one Indian guy who moved to Massachusetts, USA. Perhaps to work for Thy Googleth.

Now remember this was before the Boeing 747s. He probably traveled in a la Sindbad fashion, sailing across the oceans, for weeks, to reach the North Americas. You read right. Weeks!! Do you still feel like complaining about the 16 hour non-stop flight to New York? On the bright side there was possibly no jet lag, only a few weeks of see-sawing and the consequent hurling of lunch and dinners, back into the ocean. Must have been fun times.

The number of Indians, traveling to the Americas for work, rose to seven hundred between 1820 and 1900. That was then. Fast forward a few tens of years and the current number of Indians, in the US, is just shy of 2.9 million.

That’s like 0.9% of the US population!! A long way from the lone traveler.

Even until about a few decades back, not many of those NRIs would consider coming back home. There were not as many opportunities and even life in India seemed to pale compared to the comforts of the west. “If we visit you guys in India, what would we do for light after sunset? Do you guys have electricity at home?: asked a distant NRI relative to another who lived in New Delhi, in 2008!! I wish I could respond by saying, “We usually wait for our NRI friends to bring us candles!”

So what really happened since the assumed dark days of candleless nights?

It is probably not one but some of many reasons that prompt NRIs to decide to pack their bags and head home. (Read NRI Return Checklist)

Let’s read on.

To Market to Market

There’s that practical reason speaking to our pragmatic bones. Why would anyone want to leave a job which pays in a currency nearly 70 times better than our rupee? I remember the brief elite sensation I used to feel while exchanging my dollars for INR. Why give that up?

Well, let’s just take the last decade or so into consideration. Sometime in the late 2000s, the US economy tanked under recession. With that grew the fear of loss of jobs and instability. As is usually the case with most countries, immigrants became the target of despise and NRIs started looking east for job opportunities.

And while the Dow Jones Industrial Average, in the US, rose only 62%, our very own Sensex (#notadirtyword) grew a whopping 310%, in the last ten years. There were better investment returns, better start-up possibilities and aids, and just more number of jobs on this side of the ocean.

In fact, there was a Harvard Law School study, done around the same time, that showed the statistics of the mass return. To summarize the study,

– Of all the senior management employables in the US, only 10% were holding cushy jobs there while nearly 44% of them could have found a top position here in India. With a country, like ours, a top dog position could only be described as working class royalty!

– Well over 50% of the studied NRIs felt that India had a lot more to offer in job opportunities and business entrepreneurship for the skills they had acquired in the US.

– And only 6% of the surveyed students, who had gone to the US for higher studies, felt that they would stay on there for good.

The moral of the study being that, India, with its growing economy and buying power, is a desirable location for not only investments from FDIs but also people coming back to partake in it. So, it doesn’t really require you to be a rocket scientist to understand why people would look towards here for growth and stability for jobs.

One for the Masters, one for the dame.
One for the student who now has a degree to frame.

While this would certainly depend on the field of study, but in general, there are now grants, aids and provisions for the scholars abroad to come back with healthy start up money. INSPIRE, Ramanujan and other scientific fellowships help PhDs abroad to apply for a host institute on receipt of a grant.

Of course, the proceedings aren’t easy and frankly the money and time provided are not enough for a lot of researchers to make a solid ground for getting established, but nonetheless it is an attractive scheme for a head start in research (Read Careers in Academia after PhD).

Say if your research doesn’t require millions in setting up equipment or labs, then the 35-40 lakhs in research money for 5 years, and the monthly salary equivalent of any Assistant Professor in the IITs, are not too shabby. All you have to do is write a proposal, choose an institute and demonstrate a good knowledge of all recent Tushar Kapoor sleazy flops to show that you have not lost touch with the goings-on in this country. And that’s really easy. Take one of his sleazy flops from five years ago and add a number for the subsequent sequels!

DRDO has its own honey trap for Indian scientists abroad. The NRI Induction program is an exclusive selection criteria for hiring Indian scholars who are thinking about or have returned home in the recent past. A way to bring the brains right where it matters most.

Ye jo des hain tera

Finally there is the other aspect to the reason behind the journey back. This one has very little to do with all things objective. This one doesn’t really care that you have an established career or a well paid job with a decent lifestyle, in your adopted country. This one is all about what Dil Chahta Hain. And within this, there are two main reasons that are prompting our fellow country people back here.

The first one being cultural.

It is one thing to decide to move for yourself and quite another when you realize that you will be bringing up a family in essentially an unknown land. Yes of course you know your way around, can speak the language and even have the means to create a little India for yourself, in your community and amongst your friends, there.

However, many still do feel that their kids will be brought up not ever really knowing where their parents come from. While most make peace with it and are even successful in educating their kids about home, a few come back, citing the inability to accept the possibility that in time their kids will become more alienated with their Indian heritage.

Perhaps, the real driving force is not so much that their kids will know less about the Indian culture but rather a fear that their kids might never share the upbringing they once had. Maybe they fear that they will never know what it is like to play cricket with their cousins with a dhobi bat! Or that their kids may one day prefer Steven Seagal’s fist-to-face punching movies over Salman’s face-to-fist ones.

Whatever be the pull, you can now see parents citing such reasons for their move back. Just as well there are also quite a few immigrant Indian parents who feel that their children’s future prospects are brighter if they stay on, in the west. It’s a purely to whom it may concern thing.

It’s a matter of emotions.

This one is more on the lines of feeling a ping and a then a pang for home. Enough to forego the apparent job and monetary compensations and follow nostalgia lane back to the place that constitutes most of your memories. And it’s not like a few decades ago when lifestyles in India and, say, the US were vastly different.

Since the 90s, we have become more global. If you can afford it, there is nothing really to stop you from enjoying the same comforts and conveniences. Hell even Amazon and Netflix are here now. With home shopping and online streaming, who needs to be in the US anymore?

Jokes aside, staying away from families and a general sense of uprootedness, coupled with the fact that there is not really a vast difference in lifestyle, are possibly good reasons why professionals and students are returning home.

Ultimately, there is no right thing to do in your decision to stay on elsewhere, or come back to India. (Read – Please come back to India. Your country needs you)

There could be times when it would make more sense to reside elsewhere in another country whereas there could also be times when your circumstances or even your personality may compel you to return home. Needless to say, whatever you decide will hopefully be a choice made to best suit your needs- your satisfaction, happiness and your priorities.

My priorities had a shift after completing a PhD and a few years of a corporate job, in the US. I am now back home, making my living as a writer and residing within 20 miles of my family. Though there are some who ideally should be in Mars now, the rest make up for the high happiness factor.

So good luck to all who are thinking, undecided or perhaps staying back. And good luck to all who are back and finding their rhythm to the Indian ways, once again.

So hey hey hey! Just make way for the Indian!

Read these related posts:
Best ways H4 dependent visa holders can work in the USA
My experience of returning from USA to India | NRI Checklist
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Watch this video to learn how you can become an entrepreneur at a young age

Rakhi Acharyya
About Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

23 thoughts on “Reasons why NRIs are returning to India – Reverse Brain Drain”

  1. Nice read Rakhi. I moved to India 2 months back and can relate to your post so well. The first thing my son (18 months old then) noticed when we were at the airport was “beep beep”. I smiled and said welcome to India beta.
    I left my job with an awesome company in US and moved here without a job (I thought I would take a brief sabbatical but thats not easy to get used to). I had thought I would take up part time job in my field of expertise though I didnt know it would be tough even when I have over 10 years of work experience in US. Job hunt has actually been very eye opening and humbling (my 10 year of US work exp ego lays bare infront of me :))
    India works so differently and life goes on. the cities have become very selfish though- trying to get ahead at every cost. then I come back to the reasons i moved here- family and friends and familiarity.
    I know life will be so much more beautiful here than in US for me and my family, its just the few months to a couple of years of adjusting that we need to go through.
    Happy transitioning to all of us who are going through this journey. Cheers, Taruna

    • Thanks Taruna. I am glad you liked the article. The job hunt can get stressful. But that’s how the support system, here in India, helps. I mean it would have been a perfectly good decision to stay in the US with the job you had. But whatever has brought you back to India is clearly held at a higher priority than just your job there. In a way, you can derive your motivation from that. And soon enough, you will manage to find a position somewhere. May not be as financially rewarding but then that’s not just what you are looking for, are you?
      Good luck on everything. And just leave us a comment when you manage to find that fabulous job!
      Happy transitioning to you too.

  2. Hello Rakhi,

    First of all thanks a ton for writing this article and sharing your own personal experience which I am sure is helping countless INDIANS stuck between the 2 worlds ( home and abroad) , your article is more like an open book , details and perspective you have shared is really very valuable and not to mention full of enthusiasm and encouragement especially when you mentioned “shift of focus” helps and what really matters at the end of the day.

    I and my family are in the same boat , we have a 4 and half year old (born in US) and we are living in the US for almost 7 years now and constantly thinking day and night to return to INDIA at some point of time , there are so many perks of staying in US , high rewarding job and career progression , lifestyle , better health care, , convenience etc but there are some many things we miss as well especially friends and family , the feeling of belonging to home , and ofcourse domestic help (as i will not have to wash the dish all the time 🙂 but we are stuck with our decision – not able to decide whethere to stay or go back…. I think we came here for a purpose and seems like we kind of accomplished it … now we want a safe and thriving world for our kid – expose him with the culture , festivals so many things that one can only enjoy being there in a true sense, job and safety for us , and ofcourse the the touch of friends and family , I am sure there are plenty of IT jobs available in INDIA and we can move back easily, kids education and lifestyle has improved too especially in tier 1,2 cities . everytime I go on a vacation to INDIA my feeling goes stronger to stay there and not come back … with your article it felt like talking to some one like a close friend helping us to move ahead in this direction.

    Again Thanks for sharing your perspective and experience , I am very positive and hopefully will soon return to place where we belong -INDIA!!

  3. Hi Rakhee,
    Its been 16 years since I have left India. During this time, I lived in UK, got an Honours degree then worked for 3 years in a private company. Total time spent in UK was about of 8 yrs. Then I met my husband (australian of Indian origin), got married and moved to Australia. He has been living in Aus here for 16 years. I have lived in Aus for 8 years now nd both has fantastic jobs and live a very comfortable life. We recently visited India for about 6 weeks.
    Last night my husband said he would like to move to India for good as he wants to be next to his family and so will I and also that he will be able to develop his dad’s business. We also discussed about the possibility of starting a family there and having all the support blah blah blah. We also spoke about how I could either help him in the family business or work for a private company. He also said he would not live with his parents so we will be independant and will have a house help asap and there was possibility of a driver in a few months time.
    To be honest, it is freaking me out! I have not lived there in 16 years. Whilst my parents are there and I love them to bits, i am troubled with the thought how dificults easy things will get. I am worried about my career. I am happy that my husband will succeed in taking over his father’s business and will floursih but what about me and my career? Will i get a well paid job. I hate the “influencing bit” to get any where in my career, I dont want to work long hours there, i dont want to work weekends, I am frightened of the roads and safety, I do not want relatives and family interference in my life. I left India because the concept of merit does not exist, it is about who you know !
    I am confused, sad and petrified to be honest! I dont know what to do ?
    It is really sad that I am so afraid to live in the same country that I was born in and lived there for 17 years. I recognise that and I am also ashamed.

    • It is natural to feel confused and even scared. But you should feel comforted by the fact that you have your family to support you through the transition. It will take time to adjust back, both in the professional and personal aspects of your life. However, getting frustrated may only become counterproductive. People have good and bad careers here in India, just like any other place. You need to try your best and I am sure something great will work out. If not in a few days, maybe in a few months.
      As far as your family interference is concerned, it is up to you to set your own boundaries and let people know that they need to respect that. Of course while being nice diplomatic about it :).
      Take a deep breath and just treat this situation objectively. It is just a change and that’s all. It would have been just as freakish had you been moving to any other country. Only now, you know this one. You know the language, the people, the culture and everything else. You have lived here long enough to trust your instincts to let it all come back.
      India may have changed a bit since you left, but it is home after all. You will find your way, don’t worry.
      Good luck!

  4. Wonderful article Rakhi!

    It’s nice to see a lot of you contemplating returning to India. Me and my wife are planning to move back home in Aug’17 )after a month long east-west coast road trip!)

    Is there a group of returning NRIs? I was looking for returning or recently returned NRIs in Bangalore and couldn’t find anything. Do you guys think there’s a need for one?

  5. Great article and good conversations!
    I first moved to Australia in 2003. Did my masters and then worked here until 2009, when I moved back to India for 2 years. It was a move for good, however, Melbourne was like 2nd home and various things pulled me back – probably wanted to work few more years to have a stronger bank balance. Lived in Mumbai for those 2 years, which is quite the opposite of Kolkata (where, I was born and brought up), however the weather was similar 🙂
    I now plan to move back to India (hopefully for good this time) and I would be choosing Kolkata as I believe, that is the city I belong to.
    There are too many ifs and buts still to be considered, including my wife not being 100% ready as yet. I just felt overwhelmed hearing everyone’s story here and hence wanted to say thanks & best of luck to everyone! 🙂

  6. Great article. I’m planning to move back to India after 12 years of living abroad. Could you also please share your experiences of moving back to India as a single woman who has lived abroad for a while. What about relationships and dating? Did you find your ideologies match with people and friends you made. And did you go back to living in your own place in India or moved back in with family/parents? How was that experience ? I guess these are very personal topics but a general insight will be useful to those contemplating a move.

    • First off, thanks!
      Well, I did come back home and joined my fiancé who I had known for years and had a similar story, like mine. So the ambiguity of dating was spared. However, from what I have heard, dating is a bane no matter where you are – India or US. Online dating is still in its infancy as compared to the more established matrimonial websites. But the rest is pretty much like anywhere else. I guess the best way to meet people, here, are through others you know, at your workplace or college, and that serendipitous spotting of the compatible kind in one of the million and a half festivals that we are blessed with every year :). And as far as living as a single woman is concerned, bigger metros are now more open to the concept of single men and women moving away from homes, for work. So you might say things are more accepting than before. Hopefully you should have no problem. Just be keep your cautious radar on when meeting new people.

      • Hi,it is great help for people coming back to India..iam asking here what about going usa,seems inappropriate at this article but some one can help in making a iam a doctor by profession wanted to go usa for study and settle there for some years and come back…this will takee around 10 to 15 years..iam still not married ..iam only concerned about my family and friends..and my family is insisting to stay here..don’t know what to decide and not able to concentrate on my studies..a thought ful light can help me in making right choice…staightly at the long run what is more important 1)the best career,individuality or 2) a loving family by my side so I can take care..
        By the way I have good job here and decent salary..but I can do it better in usa.

        • USA does have good options for expanding on career and experience. So if you do have an offer to study from a well reputed university, in a field you would like to specialize in, that would be a great opportunity. That being said, I am not in a position to decide, for you, whether it would be wise for you to leave for over a decade or stay with your family, in your current position. However I can help you focus on a few things to make a more informed decision.
          – Would this degree, in the US, help your career grow?
          -Do you know past students who have been to this university and have had success with a background similar to yours?
          -Have you studied and weighed the options of whether you are going to be able to get a job permit and manage a sponsored job in the US, after your degree?
          -Is it going to be a financial strain or are you going to get some sort of scholarship, fellowship or job to sustain yourself, in the US?
          -Have you studied the location, where you would like to go, for international population. How accepting the region is?
          These could help you begin to think about this more objectively. If you are thinking of going to the US, with a perception that it will be better, without actually studying your options, it might be an unwise thing to do. That goes for anywhere really. Make an informed decision and good luck.

        • If you come to US, you will make money, live comfortably within your house and small family. But….
          after 10-15 years you will be lonely, feel like you gave up a lot for money, wealth…ideas about returning back, will nag at you, but…. after 10-15 years in U.S, you will have missed the best part of being an Indian and living in India and most important – love and affection of family and personal freedom…
          In the end the care and nearness of your family, relatives, friends is most important…

  7. Interesting Article. Thanks for sharing. I do have a plan to move in the near future. Looking for a Cargo shipping of my things like Couch, TV, furniture etc. hope the customs duty won’t add up much costs to it.

  8. Hi Rakhi!
    what a cool column!
    I’m kinda curious how you are coping with India, after this breakin period.
    We’ve lived in the US for 12 years and still toy with the idea of moving back; (not having kids allows that!)
    Financially we’re stable; so the bigger question is to avoid buyers remorse.

    • Well, that would be subjective. Whether you are transitioning well or with some effort. I am liking it here. Now more than ever.

  9. very nice article
    and Mr Vikrum is making a group hr being the whistleblower
    Now that Mr TRUMP is moving mountains I have to choose a petty job or
    NO JOB back in India.
    JOB through contract to keep IN the Q for the ongoing GREEN CARD which is in process I have renewed H1B.
    please suggest .
    I have few days .

    • Hi Ajoy,
      I am not sure what I can suggest. One thing you can try is keep plugging at your job efforts in India, as well as in the US. If your H1B is renewed, you are already golden until your even more secure green card shows up. Is your current job in trouble? Or are you just looking to find another in India or US?

  10. Good article.. thanks for sharing your thoughts. here is my story, Me and my wife along with 2 kids of 4 and 2 years of age reside in Canada in a beautiful city. We have a golf course backing onto our house with living space of 4000 sq. feet. We have beautiful parks around our house and we drink tap water without fearing of getting any water born disease. We have been here last 10 years and keep revisiting thoughts on going back to India. After one of such discussion this morning, I started reading articles on google about why NRI’s go back to India and their life there after. I would like to ask your thoughts on some of the questions I have below
    1. Canada offers global opportunities for a career. There is Meritocracy in the workplace and higher education. What’s the work culture in India? do we still call our managers “Sir” and get up from our chair when a senior manager walks in?
    2. Canada is a multicultural society. Kids get to know classmates from all over the world. How diverse is the education systems back home? or do we have to consider expensive education in an international school?
    3. Very comfortable life here in terms of material comforts. Systems work really well. People are efficient. Easy to get things done. Is this comparable to Indian life?
    4. North American values independence, self-reliance, go-getting drive. How do NRI’s cope up with a fact of being dependent on others for house chores, involvement in kids education (like after school classes?)
    5. Do people still stare at young girls, women in public transit? or roads may be?
    6. Canada is the least imperfect society. Has its problems, but at least we don’t have to worry about traffic, pollution, bribery, reservation in education systems and petty corruption, trains running on time, etc. How much India has improved in this in the last 10 years?
    7. Medical facilities are much better and at almost no cost here. How are the medical facilities there and I am not talking about expensive private hospitals but general hospitals. ?
    8. India is full of festivals, that’s great but what happens when roads get blocked during Ganapati festival or people breath air full of pollution during Diwali because of crackers?
    After all life is not just about opportunities for work and business, there has to be a work life balance.
    Would like to know your thoughts on this. Thanks

  11. Hi Rakhi, this has been useful – I will be moving back to India soon. I am in Hong Kong and using HK post to Move my clothes/linen and a few other household things is looking like the most economic option. You moved stuff using US Post, Did delivery in India go off smoothly?


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