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BACK IN BENGAL

At the point of return

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Doctors, academics and professionals are slowly finding their way back to Kolkata - the city they had fled. Recession in the West, global collaborations and the 6th Pay Commission are drawing them back.

For many decades now, Kolkata has been known as the best city to get away from. The best and the brightest from this city, and the state, preferred to migrate to greener pastures in the rest of the country and abroad. Understandably so, for the city and the state had sunk into a morass of decay and degeneration where talent had no place. But over the past couple of years, the brain drain has hit a reverse gear with many accomplished Kolkatans - scientists, academics, doctors and professionals - returning to the city. The latest example of this significant trend is the newly upgraded Presidency University receiving a flood of applications for its faculty positions from teachers and scholars in renowned universities in the US and Europe. With the entire faculty of the University being recruited afresh, 32 of its 49 new recruits are from leading foreign and national universities.

It isn't only Presidency University that's attracting Kolkatans who had left the city. The premier Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) has recruited more than 20 Indian scientists, most of them Kolkatans, from renowned scientific and research institutions in Europe and the US over the last two years. The Indian Statistical Institute, Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Jadavpur University, Bengal Engineering & Science University, Calcutta University, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and a few other institutions have recruited many who had left the city to take up research and teaching posts abroad. "This is a very welcome development and the time is not far when Kolkata will reclaim its position as a premier hub of education, academic and scientific activities and achievements, " says SINP director Milan Kumar Sanyal.

But it is not only academics and scientists who're returning home. A good number of doctors have given up their jobs in the West and joined hospitals or set up their own practices here over the past few years. The IT and ITeS sectors have also witnessed a similar trend. So what is it that's started drawing them back from their comfortable jobs and lifestyles abroad? "The negative perception about Bengal has been changing slowly over the past few years. I made a few exploratory trips and saw things were changing and decided it would be a good idea to return to Kolkata. I have always loved this city and missed it a lot. Most of my family is also here, " paediatrician Abhinav Mukherjee, who chucked his high-paying job in the top-ranked Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in 2008 to set up a private practice in Kolkata said. Like Mukherjee, Somesh Mondal also passed out from Calcutta Medical College in the turbulent 1970s and, after obtaining a post-graduate degree in ophthalmology from Chandigarh, headed to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami, Florida, where he worked for more than two decades before joining a major private healthcare chain's facility in Kolkata. "I earn here as much as I used to in the US. But here is the pleasure of working in the city I grew up in and amidst people I grew up with, " he says.

It isn't only nostalgia, though that is a factor, that's pulling back people like Mukherjee and Mondal. SINP director Sanyal says the West being hit by recession and resulting job cuts as well as reduced government funding to institutions is another cause. Also, while the infrastructure gap between India and the West was huge, leading to the brain drain, this gap has become a blur now. "Three years ago, we made a major leap in developing our infrastructure and what we have now is world-class, " says Sanyal. Oishee Chakraborty, who left Kolkata to join Harvard University's National Institute of Health and returned a little over a year ago to join SINP's Structural Genomics Division, says: "The availability of world-class facilities at SINP prompted me to return. I want to do good research in Kolkata and give back to the city part of what I got from it. " And even though money is not a big lure for scientists, the pittance that they used to get till the 6th Pay Commission hike significantly reduced the yawning gap between salaries in the West and India has also helped draw back talent. Koustubh Panda, Calcutta University's head of biotechnology department who was a staff scientist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, US, says that taking the cost of living and other factors into consideration, there's not much difference between what he used to take home in Ohio with what he does now.

The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), the country's oldest research institute, has also witnessed many of its researchers and scientists returning. "This has become a trend, " says IACS senior professor of organic chemistry Brindaban Chandra Ranu, who had left a postdoctoral position at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA, to join this institution. Kaushik Sengupta from North Western University, USA, who joined SINP last year, says: "Institutions like the SINP and IACS have taken a big leap in collaboration on projects with globally renowned ones like CERN, Geneva, and so researchers and scientists here have the scope of working on international projects with the added lure of doing it so from their home base".

For Adhar Manna, who was assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the Sanford School of Medicine before joining Presidency University last monthend, it was the challenging prospect of teaching at Presidency that drew him back. "Presidency has the best students in India and it is a pleasure to share a classroom with them, " he says. Sraman Mukherjee, who was with the International Institute of Asian Studies at Leiden in Netherlands before he joined Presidency as assistant professor a few days ago, says: "It is so exciting to teach at the institution that I once studied in. It was eternal nostalgia and desire to return that brought me back". Globally renowned astrophysicist Somak Roychaudhury, a professor at University of Birmingham, will join Presidency later this month. "I've studied at Oxford and Cambridge and taught at Harvard and Birmingham. I hope I've learnt a few things about what makes these institutions leaders in the field and I can share this experience that'll help Presidency achieve glory, " he says.

"The buzz is back in Bengal and the prospect of being part of exciting new things happening here was what brought me back. I find my new job here more exciting than in the US. Factor in the low cost of living here and the emotional high of meeting my parents, siblings and childhood friends regularly, and I think I'm better off here, " says Suneil Sharma, who left his job as a teacher at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Information Systems and Management in February this year to join a major IT consultancy company in his native Kolkata. In fact, so strong has this 'homecoming' trend become that universities and other institutions here have started planning what was unimaginable even a couple of years ago - recruiting from USA and Europe. West Bengal Engineering & Science University (BESU) Vice Chancellor Ajay Ray has already met with success in this: he received many applications from Indians teaching in leading US universities for faculty positions in BESU when he went to that country on a recruitment drive recently. The wheel, it seems, has come full circle.

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