Thursday, 22 October 2015

Why relocate to India?

Ever since we announced our decision to move back to India to our family and friends, we've been asked this question on numerous occasions. Why do you want to leave the comforts of the West and relocate to India?

I guess, all the people who've moved to India have their own reasons - personal or professional - and the answer varies for everyone. However, in the past few weeks we've been asked this so many times that sometimes we question our own decision. Are we doing the right thing? Are we going to degrade our quality of life and are we denying a larger set of opportunities to our future generations by moving to India? I think it's always better to clear one's head and what better way to organise one's thought than to write them down. So here's my list of reasons of moving back to India:

  1. Old school academia:
    When I decided to pursue PhD, a big motivator was the lure to have a career in academia where one is free to work on problems that interest you. I still have that feeling and that is the reason I chose to join an IIT which offers considerable amount of freedom to professors. This is one factor on which IITs rank much higher than their western counterparts. Professors in the west have to continuously get research funds in order to just maintain a lab (sometimes even paying rent and electricity bills) and pay the students. Many are forced to work fast and publish fast or risk losing their job - sadly leading to the "publish or perish" phenomenon. Many universities now treat their students as consumers and student evaluations have become an important factor in deciding promotion of a faculty.
    India is faring much better in this regard. Costs of lab maintenance aren't too much as the institute gives lab space and scholarship to all PhD students. Tenure isn't a problem as the job is made permanent after a year. Student evaluations of courses do happen but they're mostly for professors to improve their teaching. They're not a criteria for promotion or salary increment.
    All these factors make the academia in India a much more lucrative profession from a professor's viewpoint. Since you don't have to worry about so many 'trivial' distractions, you can focus on your lecturing and your research and prioritise on your own.
  2. Familiarity and ease of living:It's obviously much more convenient to live at a place with which one is familiar. Consulting with a doctor, getting a good school/daycare for children, getting your car repaired, getting a plumber to work on a Sunday, getting domestic help and hiring people to do odd jobs -- these are things about which one doesn't think much while living in India. But things like these can be a big challenge depending on which country do you live in.
    My spouse and I would really love to be in a situation where we can employ people to cook, clean, and drive for us.
  3. Family:
    One important reason is of course, family. No matter how good the life is in the west, one does miss special occasions like wedding of a cousin, or festive celebrations during Diwali and Holi. It's also important to be close to parents when they're nearing the age of retirement and aren't always in a good health.
    Another important thing for me is that I want my children to grow up in an environment where they can be closer to their roots, understand and absorb the good aspects of the Indian value system. Very often it is seen that children of immigrants face an identity crisis all through their adolescent years which isn't a very pleasant situation.
  4. Patriotism:
    Last, but not the least, I love my country. I usually do not tell this to people as patriotism is an often misunderstood emotion. It is also not very pragmatic, to be honest. But there are some times in one's life when heart wins the battle with the head.
    I feel that if I'm in India, I can contribute to welfare of the country. I will be teaching students, most of whom will stay in India and do something good for the society and economy. My spouse can also work on their pet social project of improving women's education in the country.
  5. Dual-career situation:
    [EDIT: this was added at a later stage] I realised after some people mentioned it to me, how easy it is to solve the two-body problem in Indian academia as compared to the west.

As Rocky Balboa once said "The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows"; we're fully aware of what lies ahead. Here is a list of some challenges that we think are waiting for us:
  1. Shift from a developed to a developing country:
    This is going to be hard. After having lived here for so long, I can't deny that we're very much used to the material comforts. We're also taking a significant reduction in our salary to move to India - and therefore many things (electronics, vacations, good alcohol, good meat) are going to be dearer.
  2. Family and orthodoxy: 
    It's often said that family is something that you can't live with and you can't live without.
    It probably suffices to say that our families do not have particularly progressive views when it comes to liberalism and feminism. Some of them still believe that husband must earn, do manly things, and shouldn't enter the kitchen; wife must cook, wear saree and perform fasts during festivals, and should prioritise family over work. There are going to be some conflicts in the first few months, probably even a year or more.
  3. Facilities at work place:
    A large number of good students go abroad for their PhD. Doing experiments is a very expensive and time-consuming affair as it is difficult to procure enough funds to set up a complete lab. People not being punctual in general and slow movement of the bureaucratic machinery due to apathy and/or corruption can be very frustrating at times.
But I think the challenges, though big, can be easily overcome and do not measure up to the advantages. And of course, what good is a life without any challenges? :)

Anyway, these are my current thoughts just before moving. I'll post again after a few months of moving to compare how are the things progressing.


  1. I guess apart from logistical and personal issues, some people may ask this question because there is much more uncertainty about the future in India than in the West. All societies face challenges but India's challenges seem taller, be it climate change or security. I also feel that a lot of English medium educated can actually identify a lot more with politicians in the west, especially the US, than with leaders back home.

    I think this was one of the reasons well educated Indians did not move abroad after the early days of independence. Then there seemed to be a big picture and a political leadership they could identify with. Today, the big picture is something you have to think about and convince yourself of on your own.

  2. @Vikram: I think the uncertainities in the "West" are just of a different kind. To take academia as an example, as soon as you go outside the top 30 or so universities in the US, a non-trivial number of departments have seen closure (the most high-profile case being the closure of the computer science department at the University of Florida: The NIH has published position papers describing that the average age of successful grant applicants has been increasing at the rate of 1 year per year(!).

    On the other hand, education and research spending in India and many other Asian countries seems to be following a long term increasing trend.

  3. "I think this was one of the reasons well educated Indians did not move abroad after the early days of independence."

    Is there data supporting this claim? I seem to remember hearing that the scientific brain drain was at the highest in the 2-3 decades after independence. The absolute numbers might have been lower then, but just looking at my age cohort, the relative numbers seem to be much lower now.

  4. @Vikram: I agree with the statement "... the big picture is something you have to think about and convince yourself of on your own". But in my opinion, this also applies to a person who plans to settle in US or Europe. As the Anonymous commenter mentioned that the uncertainties in the West are just of a different kind.

    Leadership of politicians is something that I've never cared about. I'm not sure if I completely follow your argument about "english medium educated people" - I'm also one. But I can say that in both cultures, I find very few politicians to be really worthy. I would rather base my decision by looking at the general society and culture instead of the current political climate which won't last more than 4-5 years.

  5. Sorry for the delay in responding folks.

    Anonymous 1, I agree there are uncertainties in the West, after all they are part of life. But as you mention, they are of a different kind. From the point of view of an academic career there is indeed less uncertainty in India, but the Western countries have been industrialized for a long time and overall have much better experience and capacities for managing such a society. Also democracy is deeper there, and so there are more organized demands on national surplus (which can be used for academic/research purposes) than in India.

    Let me give you an example. I recently spoke to a leading researcher in India who works on water supply planning for Indian cities. I asked her how many active researchers we have in the field of hydrology/groundwater modeling, and the answer was zero. So in a country that is already water stressed and is going to be even more so in the future as the monsoons weaken and average temperatures rise, there are virtually no Indian academic experts (forget highly skilled practitioners) for such a key aspect of our future.

    I could give further examples from the field of medicine and transport, but you get the drift. The deficiencies in all these key areas create doubts about whether society and the economy can manage itself.

  6. Ordinary person,

    I can understand your sentiments when you say "Leadership of politicians is something that I've never cared about." But India really doesnt have a choice in this matter. It is not very damaging for an American to be politically aloof, the system and institutions here are well established, and like I mentioned earlier, the economy has already gone through the process of industrialization.

    In India, the situation is very, very different. Apart from the EC and upper tiers of the judiciary, our institutions are either in bad shape or non-existent. And ultimately, the task of building institutions falls on politicians.

  7. Hi Vikram,

    I agree with most of what you say. I think most of these differences are largely between a developed and a developing economy (with some corruption included), and thus expected. In the context of this blog post, let me say that there are dozens of reasons why people would prefer to live in US or Europe, but there are a few personal reason (depending on the things that you value) which can attract people to India as well.

    By the way, I saw your blog and the good things you are doing through AID. Thanks for the good work and I hope you're able to make some big difference.

  8. There is one other factor which many do not realise, mentioned peripherally by Vikram (water supply context). The number of national level experts in India is rather small in almost any field and it is fairly straightforward to rise to the level of being able to influence national policy, especially if one is in IIX (or other such national level institution) and reasonably competent.

    1. That's true Prof. Sriram. I guess I didn't think about it, but now that I see, some of my old professors from IIT are already doing such things.

      (Sorry for the late reply, I somehow missed this comment)

  9. The location of the IIX is also important, IMHO. In terms of cultural activities and fine dining (in case one cares about things of that nature) there is a fair bit of difference between the cities of Kanpur and Bangalore.

    Also, no matter where in India you relocate to, be prepared to experience reverse culture shock, especially if you have spent several years away.