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India on the whole faces a growing retention problem

Just a few months ago, India leapt past the UK to become the fifth-biggest economy in the world by one measure. The forecasts of economists suggest that India’s economy will grow by 6.5% to 7% in 2022-23. While many countries are talking about an impending recession, there are very few such worries in India. Indian stock markets are at a historical high. Just a month back, 5G services were officially launched India. Thanks to this, digital commerce, digital health, digital education and the whole digital economy is expected to take off in a big way. In the midst of all these and more positive developments, there is a disturbing social trend.

This trend has been on my radar for the past few years. I have been noticing that several youngsters in my immediate community were migrating to countries like Canada and Australia. But I did not want to come to any conclusion on the basis of these anecdotal pieces of evidence. But, as the numbers around me increased, I decided to take a closer look at this trend.

In 2021, Canada admitted a record 405,000 new immigrants. Among them, nearly 100,000 were Indians who have became permanent residents of Canada.

At the end of June 2020, 721,050 Indian-born people were living in Australia, more than twice the number (329,510) on 30 June 2010. After people from the UK, Australia’s Indian-born population of migrants is the second largest, equivalent to 9.4% of Australia’s overseas-born population and 2.8% of its total population.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Migration Australia, the median age of immigrants is 34.7 years. Which means many are migrating as a family. The International Migration Outlook 2022 report confirms this trend. According to this report, family migration increased by 40% in 2021 and remained the largest category of inflows, accounting for more than four in ten new permanent immigrants to developed countries, like members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This is quite different from the past migration to Gulf countries which was in search of better job opportunities. These migrations were temporary and since in many cases their families stayed back in India, it also led to remittances flowing back to the country. But indications are that most migrations to Canada and Australia by highly educated and skilled talent are with a clear intention to resettle abroad. Not just one generation, even the next generation is leaving, lock, stock and barrel.

Students going for higher studies to foreign universities could be a boon for India. Once they acquire cutting-edge knowledge from these universities, what they know can be put to good use back home, provided they come back. According to a recent survey by INTO University Partnerships, almost 76% of Indian students looking to study abroad plan to work and settle overseas after completing their international degree. Only 20% plan to return to India immediately after studying abroad. On the other hand, according to data released by China’s ministry of education covering a period of 1978 to 2019, of the nearly 6.6 million Chinese students who went overseas for studies, 4.9 million completed their programmes in foreign universities and 86% of these students returned to China after graduating.

So India has a serious retention problem. Some of the best talented and educated Indians want to leave India for good. This trend raises many questions. Why can’t these youngsters see the growing potential of India? Why do they want to leave a country whose economy is emerging so rapidly? How does this exodus affect the perceptions of those who stay back in the country?

The most common explanation is that the grass always looks greener on the other side. The pursuit of economic gains is surely a big reason for such decisions. The overall quality of life is also better in the West and pollution is less menacing. These are the obvious rational explanations.

But are there also deeper non-conscious reasons for people to exit India?

The recent book, Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It by Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, could offer insights into the problem under discussion. In Gallup’s global research on happiness among 146 countries, India is placed in the bottom half of the nations surveyed. There are many in India who question its methodology and so also the findings of this study. Another study, Global Happiness Survey by market research firm Ipsos, done among 27 countries, ranks India as the 13th happiest country. In both these studies, there is consistency on one aspect. Both show that since 2011, although India’s economic growth has been robust, the proportion of very happy people in India has been on the decline. The Ipsos study noted that in 2011, 89% of Indians were happy. This dipped to 78% in 2017 and 66% in 2020. It should also be noted that in both these international studies, countries like Canada and Australia ranked much higher than India.

Retention of good talent is emerging as a significant challenge for India. Much needs to be done to ensure that this outward trend does not become a deluge. Rapidly rising numbers for the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) might not be good enough to retain outbound migrants. Retention is much more about emotion. So a lot more should be done to strengthen the emotional quotient of our country.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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