There has been a lot of sound and fury over the introduction, or rather the re-introduction of the proposed Startup Visa by Sen. Kerry and Lugar in the Senate. Much of the commentary coming out of India (including mine) almost pre-supposes that the legislation will be passed shortly though this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the prior version of the Bill expired in Congress in 2010 since it couldn’t gain enough momentum. Even the most ardent supporters of the legislation only give it a 1% chance of success and predict it will go the way of the previous legislation unless sufficient political momentum is built up through lobbying and community mobilization. Nonetheless, the introduction of the Bill provides an opportunity to discuss the basic premises underlying the Bill, and their possible impact.
That this Bill is being introduced in a country which has always been highly conflicted about migration and at a time when the economy is in the relative doldrums speaks volumes in itself. Senator John Kerry, while talking up the Bill, described it as one that was meant to keep America’s leadership in the innovation sphere. In his words, “Global competition for talent and investment grows more intense daily and the United States must step up or be left behind.” Other countries such as the United Kingdom are also coming out with versions of their own, indicating that these words go beyond mere hyperbole. The emphasis of immigration policies seems to have shifted from attracting new talent to retaining the foreign talent trained in the United States that is already at hand. It is with this intent that H1B visa holders and foreign students have been included within the ambit of the Visa for the first time.
Going by the numbers, there will be many takers for this Visa if and when it comes into fruition. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Indians make up 46 per cent of all H1B visa holders, the numbers of which range between 650,000 to 1 million. Similarly, there are over 100,000 Indian students in the United States. According to a Brookings Institution Study, between 1994 and 2005, 10,836 doctorates or 11% of all Doctorates awarded in the Science and Engineering streams, went to students from India.
Whatever discussion there is in India is around the impact of the proposed Bill on the nascent startup ecosystem in India which was gathering steam partly on the back of the reverse migration phenomenon. One blog post even goes as far as to use the title “Startup Visa And The Impact on Indian Startup Ecosystem [BrainDrain 2.0].” Another post wonders why the Indian government doesn’t come out with a Startup Visa of its own to attract Indian and other entrepreneurial talent to india. However, the bottomline remains that none of this will help unless it becomes easier for businesses to set up shop in India. Till then, any wannabe entrepreneur, given a chance, will wing his way to Silicon Valley, considering it better to be a participant in the brain drain than have his brain in the drain. If the competition for talent and skills gets any tougher, the Indian government could consider the easy way out and did what it once did in 1964 when it restricted the issuance of passports to medical personnel “to check their exodus in the national interest.”