New H-1B: Good for Indians, not for India

The introduction of the new H1B Bill in the US allowing PhD holders to stay back and apply for a Green Card may be good for Indians as per mainstream media reports, but it certainly is not good for India. We are not patriotic when we report in this manner. Instead, we should be arguing for getting the best and brightest human capital to work for our progress.

Let us invoke Chaos theory and use the H1B crisis to disrupt our system to attract the talent back. Policymakers globally agree that the new knowledge economy requires more highly educated people with technical and professional skills. Doctoral education would be the best fuel for the knowledge economy acceleration, one we have neglected dearly and by which the US is leading the world. There is a clear correlation between human capital and economic progress as evidenced by numerous economies globally. Per capita gross domestic product growth has been the highest for countries with low natural resources but with high human capital. There are examples aplenty from South Korea to Israel.

I witnessed the plight of a father-son duo on Wednesday evening. The father wants the son to come back to India post his PhD at one of the top US universities but the son is adamant that India cannot fulfil his dreams, professionally, socially and economically. After consulting various experts, the father has the sense to see the son’s point of view.

It is high time we moved on from the copy-and-paste culture that has been encouraged from the school-project level and is continuing to start-ups and even conglomerates. A recent experience of getting a strategic investor for a transformative technology battery unit makes this emblematic. None of the three major conglomerates we approached (with 75 per cent investment closed but seeking an end-user industry partner) was willing to take a decision without a proven model elsewhere that could be pasted here.

How can we change the landscape? Although India boasts one of the largest education systems with more than 600 universities and 35,000 colleges, enrolling over 17 million students of which five million graduate every year, we need much more for a young population that is the largest in the world. Besides, we have a huge quality deficit compounded by bureaucratic apathy to change. At any point there will be over 200,000 Indian students in the US, mostly in STEM and postgraduation and the majority of Indians look for a job once educated. In comparison, China invests heavily in building its human capital, and Chinese students who get ample funding are explorers in education, and are better equipped for value creation via innovation and entrepreneurship. China offers enough capitalistic platforms to create value and their wards are lured back.

Our policymakers need not necessarily follow China’s lead but indeed they should take a few decisive socio-economic steps to benefit from the H1B crisis. 

First, reform our education system with better quality of academicians with the aim of revamping traditional teaching and exam patterns, and attracting the best talent with equitable pay on par with global standards. The criteria for academicians should be as stringent as in the US, with deeper original research, publications, and industry-academia partnerships. This will build an ecosystem that will induce our PhDs to come back and thrive in about a decade, if Chinese experience is a benchmark to go by.

Second, divert funds from a profiteering-and-nepotism-laced Skill India mission to send our brightest to the best universities in the world for higher education, with a rider that they should return to India and work on identified areas and create economic and social value. They will in turn create jobs and funnel the Skill India ecosystem. A study by the American Enterprise Institute finds that every STEM student with a PhD from the USA is adding 262 local jobs.
Third, revitalise the current innovation policy under Start-up India to actually create an ecosystem that will bring in start-ups, entrepreneurs, technologists, academia, venture capitalists and angels, Global 1000, media and skilled human capital just how Silicon Valley did. This will bring in something more valuable — the risk-taking culture exemplified by entrepreneurs. India can set up the mother of all incubation centres at a fraction of current spends that will accelerate us to the next wave of big-bang innovations. 

When even a Trump is nimble-footed to make up for his faux pas, why can’t we? After all, nationalism should be about the country’s interests and not a few countrymen.

The author is chief evangelist of Medici Institute

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