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Switzerland’s Indian migrants as agents of change

India must recognise and tap the potential of its brainy returnee migrants Keystone

The value of India’s migrants is often judged by their ability to send remittances back home. But perhaps their worth should instead be based on their willingness to contribute to the country’s development on their return. 

On January 9, 1915 Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa where he spent almost two decades. Tapping into the significance of this event, the Indian government chose the date to celebrate Pravasi Bharitya Divas or overseas Indian day that is meant to acknowledge the contributions of Indians abroad to the country’s development.

At $71 billion (CHF68.2 billion), India receives the world’s largest share of remittances from its migrants and the discourse on the Pravasi Bharitya often involves the Indian government thanking Indian migrants for sending money home and encouraging them to invest in the country’s growth.

However, more intangible but equally important contributions to India’s growth such as transfer of knowledge by returning migrants are seldom discussed. This is all the more worrying considering the alarm raised over the “brain drain” of highly qualified professionals leaving for foreign shores in search of greener pastures.

Brainy and mobile

According to the Indian Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the resident Indian population in Switzerland is close to 11,000 individuals as of 2012. Until recently, there was no real analysis of what brought these migrants to the country.

Between 2011-12, the Cooperation and Development Center (CODEV) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) conducted a survey of 242 Indian migrants in Switzerland to get an idea of their motivations for coming here and evaluate their potential to contribute to India’s development on their return.

According to the survey, they come to Switzerland mainly to study (68%) or for work (24%). A deeper analysis revealed that Indian migrants are engaged in the pursuit of very specialised knowledge. Around 71% of the students surveyed are completing their PhDs in Switzerland. Of those that are in the country to work, 46% are employed in academia and research. This level of academic involvement is higher than Indian migrants in other European countries such as Germany, France and Netherlands.  

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Thus Indian migrants in Switzerland represent great potential as a means of knowledge and technology transfer to India. This potential is magnified if one considers a conclusion drawn by  the EPFL study that returnee Indian migrants with a PhD were almost twice as likely to participate in India’s development process than others.

Another factor that works in India’s favour is that Switzerland’s Indian migrants are highly mobile. Nearly half of all Indians with tertiary education stay in Switzerland for less than five years. This makes it more likely that they will return to India to pass on the valuable knowledge and skills gained during their time abroad.

“The uniqueness of Indian skilled migrants is that they use Switzerland as a jumping board. They come here first and then they move on to either the United States or the UK, before eventually returning to India,” Gabriela Tejada of CODEV told 

Only a third of Indian students surveyed planned to stay on in Switzerland after completing their studies. 

The recent surge in economic growth has opened up new avenues for the brightest Indians in India. 

“I will definitely go back to India. I feel that there are more opportunities in India than in Switzerland right now,” says Rishikesh Kulkarni, who is currently doing his PhD at EPFL. 

This view is also shared by other highly-educated Indian professionals. 

“When I was doing my PhD in India there were a lot of obstacles to getting even simple things done. Now facilities have become better and government policies have also changed a lot,” says Srinivasa Chari, a researcher at a Swiss biotech company. 

“I might set up my own biotech company in India,” he adds. 

Giving back

 Many Indian migrants also want to return in order to give back to their country of origin. 

“In Switzerland you feel like you are more at the taking end than the giving end. Going back to India might give me the feeling of being at the giving end,” says Chakradhara Rao, cancer researcher at the University of Geneva. 

This urge to give back has been found to be particularly strong for those who come from a disadvantaged background. For example, those that have come from underdeveloped parts of the country are almost 60% more likely to believe that they will have an impact on India’s development, based on the EPFL study. 

“Indians from rural areas have struggled a lot and know the obstacles involved. In return they want to contribute their knowledge or finances to make it smoother for others,” says Chari, who did all his schooling in village schools. 

“Migrants from rural areas are more attached to their roots and that’s why they want to go back and contribute,” suggests Rao who also comes from a rural part of India. 

Amit Pandey, a robotics researcher for a French company wants to set up a robotics lab in his native state of Bihar, one of the most underdeveloped in India. 

“I have seen people from Bihar doing very well outside the state and even outside India, but within Bihar technological advancement as well as initiatives to promote new technology was lacking,” he shares. 

He thinks it would be easier for him to set up a lab in big Indian cities like Bangalore, Delhi or Mumbai but Bihar remains his first choice. 

“India must try to improve infrastructure in places that are not big hubs to ensure that the migrants’ expertise benefits the entire country and not just a few major cities,” says Tejada. According to her, this is the best way for India to make the most of these highly-educated returnee migrants who want to contribute to India’s development. 

However, it is not just India that needs to do more to take advantage of Indian migrants. Switzerland can also leverage the Indian migrants it hosts, even if they are only in the country for a relatively short period. 

“One way Switzerland can take advantage of the mobility of Indian students and researchers is by keeping the contacts with them active, because whether they end up in India or the US, they often come back with collaboration proposals and projects thereby creating networks that are valuable for a small country like ours,” says Tejada.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR