Brain drain

A bill that would give visas to high-tech foreign students will exploit the greatest minds of the third world for the sake of American industry.

Published January 10, 2000 1:00PM (EST)

A bill now before Congress would give preferential treatment to foreign students with advanced degrees in science and engineering who want to work in the United States.

To those of us who are immigrants, the bill seems simply to legitimize a policy surreptitiously implemented by U.S. industry for nearly four decades -- namely, stealing brains from the third world.

In general, the "21st Century Technology Resources and Commercial Leadership Act," which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., brought to the Senate in late 1999, is designed to keep the U.S. high-tech industry on top by filling the need for skilled technology workers. One provision of the bill states that, among non-immigrant visa applications, the state should give preference to foreign nationals with secondary degrees in math, science, engineering or technology. Such a provision would provide "temporary skilled personnel" in those fields.

During the 1960s and 1970s, politicians in my native country, India, used to brandish the slogan "Stop Brain Drain" -- a reference to the fact that the cream of India was leaving for the lucrative shores of England and America.

In that post-independence era, when everything foreign was considered tainted by colonialism, we talked of cottage industries and economic imperialism. We threw Coca-Cola out and invented "Thumbs Up."

But it was also the era of Sputnik, of nuclear power and the green revolution. Every year, on Independence Day, our Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of the benefits of science and technology.

Our institutes of technology, built with European and American aid, offered students free room and board, even stipends. Indian taxpayers footed the bill in the hope that one day the graduates would help reconstruct the nation.

I was one such student. But poring over my textbooks late at night in the library of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), I would dream, not of India, but of America, the land of opportunity. Many students like me, indeed, left during those years, never to return.

So our government set up special programs to tempt foreign graduates. Our leaders saw parallels to the independence movement founded by people like Nehru and Gandhi who, after imbibing Western political ideology at institutions like Eton and Oxford, returned home to serve their motherland.

But few foreign graduates came home to "redeem their pledge," as Nehru had put it. Our leaders had failed to foresee that the emphasis on symbol manipulation at IIT left little room for social ideology and much scope for capitalistic greed.

Over the next two decades, IIT graduates -- educated at the expense of Indian taxpayers -- played a major role in founding California's Silicon Valley. The personal computer revolution and the invention of the internet made the demand for skilled labor mushroom to such gigantic proportions that even if every American child were to study nothing but science from now on, we would be unable to keep pace with demand in the decades to come.

In other words, the legislation would benefit not foreign workers, but American industry which would be crippled without it. In India in the meantime, the entire education system has shifted gears to feed the appetite of the American computer industry. As IIT cannot graduate enough students to fill these needs, so every street corner now sports billboards for private academies offering diplomas in computer programming.

At a book show in my hometown of Nagpur recently, hordes of young people pored over books on engineering and software.

Rhetoric about "Brain Drain" doesn't hold much water when every politician has a son or a daughter aspiring to go abroad.

And why bother rebuilding the nation when the only goal is to abandon it? At the Nagpur book show, for example, the latest American social treatises were conspicuous by their absence and India's politically conscious elite has been replaced by a new generation, riding on the wave of the Internet, making fortunes within a span of years.

This new elite has abandoned all talk of economic imperialism in favor of market economics. Indians now put garlands around Bill Gates' neck and offer him the kind of reception once offered only to the queen. And Thumbs Up is a subsidiary of Coca-Cola.

Mid-sized cities like Bangalore are now the Silicon Valleys of India -- their workers generate demand for the very goods they produce. But the nation is slowly disintegrating. India's population recently hit 1 billion, but its infrastructure in water, transportation and health care is fast crumbling; its citizens breathe air that is dangerously polluted.

India has gone from an agrarian society to the cyber-revolution, bypassing intermediate stages such as the welfare state and the creation of social services.

Perhaps it is time to enact legislation calling for a "Brain Trust." Funded by corporations like Microsoft and Intel which have drained India of its brains for decades, the trust could set up new institutes in India aimed at training students not in symbol manipulation, but in social thought. Such an effort is our only hope of creating the social infrastructure needed in the next century.

By Sarita Sarvate

Sarita Sarvate is a nuclear physicist and writer for India Currents and other publications.

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