Jagtar Singh has never stopped regretting the day he agreed to his son’s request to go to Dubai. Satwinder Singh was 24 years old, the son of a small mill-owner, growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Barnala, Punjab. In January 2014, he landed a job in Al Ain, Sharjah, as an industrial worker. It would pay him 4,000 AED (about Rs 70,000) a month — a big sum for the Class XII passout.
Two years later, Satwinder’s dirham dreams lay in dust. In October 2016, Satwinder and nine other Indians were accused of murder. Two groups clashed in the labour camp where Satwinder lived. And, at the end of the brawl, Mohammed Farhan, a Pakistani in his mid-thirties, was beaten to death. Found guilty, all 10 Indians were sentenced to death.
Back home in Punjab, Satwinder’s 58-year-old father was in despair. His son was at mortal risk in an alien country far away, where he had no one to turn to. He sought help from politicians and ministers in the state government, but, everywhere, he came up against a wall.
Eventually, he heard from another Punjabi immigrant, who had been delivered from similar peril, about the saviour.
On May 25, 2017, a court in Al Ain, the capital of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reduced Satwinder’s death sentence — and that of the other nine men convicted of the crime. There was no new evidence that had swayed the court in their favour. Instead, SPS Oberoi, an Indian businessman in Dubai, had paid Rs 6.4 crore (approximately $1 million) in “blood money” or diya to the family of the victim on their behalf. In return, they were spared death and asked to serve sentences ranging from one to three-and-a-half years, depending on their involvement in the crime.
Under Islamic law, there can be a settlement between the victim’s kin and the perpetrator in cases of homicide and culpable homicide, even after the latter’s conviction by a court, through the payment of diya (Arabic for compensation). The court mediates the process.
“I got in touch with SP Singh in 2014 through Sukhjot Singh,” says Jagtar. Sukhjot, also from Barnala district, was one of the 17 men released from prison in 2013, after being convicted of murder. Oberoi had paid Rs 6 crore as blood money to buy their freedom. “I met him [Oberoi] in Barnala. He asked me if I could collect some money. I told him that even if I were to sell myself and my entire family, we could not raise such a hefty amount. He never mentioned money again. Now, not only has he paid the entire amount for Satwinder but the others too,” says Jagtar.
Oberoi negotiated with Mohammed Riaz, the victim’s father, who lives in Peshawar, Pakistan. Riaz was flown to Al Ain, where he appeared in court and signed the legal documents agreeing to pardon those convicted for his son’s murder.
Satwinder, who has served much of his sentence of three years, is expected to be free and home by end of this year. “Once he [Satwinder] returns home, I am sure he will never think of going to a foreign land again. Even if we have to do hard labour here, we can still eat two meals a day. At least, we are alive and together as a family,” says Jagtar.
Oberoi hardly looks the part of a billionaire businessman as he walks down the gleaming corridors of Bhurj Khalifa, where he lives in an apartment on the 81st floor. The dizzying heights is an apt metaphor for the phenomenal rise of the businessman, who started as a diesel mechanic in Punjab.
Oberoi is in formal attire; his turban matching his suit, neat but not natty. He is accompanied by two helpers, both carrying bags full of groceries. He opens the door to an apartment with a view of the Dubai Mall fountain. He is wearing a limited-edition pearl-and-diamond studded designer watch. He talks with pride about his fleet of cars, which include Porsches and Range Rovers. “God has given me enough. Of my entire income, I spend 98 per cent on paying back to the society, especially Punjab. The remaining two per cent is enough for my family and me to live comfortably on,” says Oberoi, as he flicks a button on a remote control. On cue, the “smart” curtains on the windows are drawn, and the television switches itself on. Oberoi settles down to watch an Indian TV drama on the life of Ranjit Singh.
There was no defining moment that turned Oberoi from a hard-nosed businessman to a philanthropist. But it probably started when he had “made so much money, that [he] did not hanker after it anymore”.
Born in 1956 in Nangal, Oberoi did his matriculation from a government school in Talwara, where his father worked as a mechanical engineer at the Pong dam. A diploma from an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) trained him to be a diesel engine mechanic. He got his first job in 1974 at Pandoh dam in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh for a monthly salary of Rs 392. From there, he went to Salal dam in Jammu and Kashmir, where he worked for a year, on a salary of Rs 500 per month, as a maintenance worker.
His fortune turned in January 1977, with a telegram asking him to appear for an interview for a job in Dubai. He had only two days to reach Hoshiarpur from Riasi, near Leh. But there was no bus or train that could take him there. He walked through the night to reach Katra railway station, from where he caught a bus to Hoshiarpur. “I was selected. There was no looking back,” Oberoi recalls, the memory of that desperate evening underlining the luxury of his Dubai apartment.
Oberoi worked in Dubai for four years as a mechanic. Sikhs had just begun to look to the Middle East for jobs, as Western countries tightened their immigration norms. He returned to India in 1981, and worked in his father’s construction company for 13 years. The family’s financial condition had improved, with his father starting a construction business.
But in 1993, the opportunity to make money in the UAE beckoned once again, and Oberoi, then a married man, returned to Dubai. This time, he had some capital — a few lakh rupees — and he went on to establish a trading company in Ajman, the smallest of the seven emirates, which is centrally located on the western coast of UAE. By 1998, he had opened a hotel, and in the first few years of the new millennium, he ventured into real estate, soon constructing and leasing out labour camps across the UAE.
The seven labour camps Oberoi owns are a major source of his income. At these camps, workers arriving every day from South Asia are put up by the companies that hire them. Many of them are construction workers, who go on to build the concrete dreams of rich Sheikhs. The camps are not free. Employers deduct accommodation charges from the worker’s wages. Dense forests of concrete, the camps sprout across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Al Ain. Most of the occupants are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Many of the crimes for which South Asian workers are arrested and sentenced take place in these camps teeming with people. Here, workers live in cramped conditions (four in each room, sometimes six-eight people are herded inside one). An occupant pays 1,000 AED (approximately Rs 17,000 per month) for the bunker bed he occupies. The workers are paid their wages after deducting the cost of stay. Very often, the employer and the owner of the camp are the same person. For instance, Oberoi owns a construction company and a trading company that deals in construction machinery. He is also a supplier of processed food across UAE. Many of the workers he employs live in his camps.
Oberoi shows The Indian Express around the packed Al Qouz camp in Dubai, a multi-storeyed block, where the corridors are lined with shoe racks. Each floor has a common kitchen, where workers make their own food. The camp is not airy but it is clean. There are large signboards warning against alcohol, but here, as in other labour camps, bootlegging is rife. The workers are all South Asian men living away from their families, engaged in a frantic rush to make money in the fastest possible time and get out. “Each camp is a different size. Al Qouz is the first labour camp that I built in 2003. It has 304 rooms and each room accommodates four workers. Besides, there are 18 office spaces, a supermarket, a restaurant, a bakery and a saloon. The rental that I earn from this one camp gives me approximately Rs 25-28 crores,” Oberoi says.
When he bails workers out of adverse situations, he is, in a sense, giving back a small percentage of what he makes out of them. Falling foul of the law, in an unfamiliar country, far away from home and family, breaks even the well-heeled. For Indian construction workers in UAE, who make on an average Rs 25,000 to Rs 40,000 per month, it is nothing less than calamitous. In dirham terms, their earnings are less than the subsistence wage in the UAE, but a huge increase over what they can earn back home. They scrimp to save money to send back to their families, as well return loans they have taken to pay agents who got them jobs in the UAE.
The UAE criminal justice system, based on the Sharia, is conducted entirely in Arabic. Usually, Indian workers end up on the wrong side of the law for brawls that end badly, or failure to repay loans. A former Indian diplomat to the UAE, who did not wish to be named, said the number of Indians in UAE jails, in proportion to the total Indian expat population, is low: out of approximately 2.6 million Indians in the UAE, just under 1,000 are in prison. “Indians are jailed mainly for defaulting on loans,” he said. Heinous offences like murder are uncommon, he noted, and usually took place in labour camps. “In crowded, shared accommodation, disputes are bound to arise. Sometimes, there are fights, either between gangs or under the influence of alcohol,” he said.
The Indian embassy in the UAE extends legal help to Indian nationals languishing in Dubai, Al Ain and Sharjah jails, and the accused also have access to some pro bono legal aid under local laws. “The embassy does not pay blood money, but does not object when someone comes forward to raise money or pay it, because the law allows this,” he said.
Oberoi is quite clear that he is not helping criminals go scot-free, because most of those who land up in prison do not have a criminal past. Mostly, they are people trapped in bad circumstances. In the cases that he takes up, Oberoi pleads the case on his own, taking the initiative to contact the victim’s family members, getting them to court and making the final payout. “Rather than donating money for construction of religious places, I believe people should come forward and donate money for causes that serve humanity,” he says.
It is not just people from Punjab that he helps. By his own count, he has saved 74 men, lodged in various jails across UAE, from execution or life imprisonment. Out of these, 50 are natives of Punjab, one each from Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar and Maharashtra, three from Andhra Pradesh, 11 from Pakistan, one from Philippines and five from Bangladesh. He has paid for 800 air tickets so that families of men incarcerated in Dubai can visit them in jail. He has also paid for the men to return home when they are freed.
In 2012, he arranged an air ambulance to fly out Yannick Nihangaza back to his country, Burundi, and also donated $ 1000 to his father. The Lovely Professional University student was the victim of a brutal racist attack in Jalandhar. After slipping into coma and battling for life for several months, Yannick was declared dead when he reached Burundi. “I got to know about this young boy lying in a vegetative state in a Patiala hospital in India. I took a flight, reached India and met the boy’s father. The poor man had been sitting by his son’s side for several weeks in the hope that he may wake up one day.
Eventually, he wanted to take his son back home. He did not have any money. Although the Punjab government did offer him help, I did my bit,” Oberoi says.
The businessman had been donating his money for charitable causes since 2011, including sponsoring marriages of poor girls, and funding schools for underprivileged children. He shot into fame in 2013, when he managed to rescue 17 Punjab natives, including Sukhjot Singh, by paying blood money of approximately Rs 6 crore.
A young man from Punjab’s Barnala district, Sukhjot Singh, now 34 years old, had landed in Dubai in 2007. Two years later, he was still repaying a loan of Rs 65,000 that he had taken to pay the agent who had arranged for his travel. He lived in a labour camp in Sharjah, and held the job of an industrial worker. During a violent clash between two groups of expat workers, a Pakistani man, Misri Khan, was killed. Khan’s cousins, Mushtaq Ahmed and Shahid Iqbal, sustained grievous injuries. The court convicted Sukhjot and 16 other workers from Punjab for the murder of Misri Khan. Sukhjot maintains he was innocent.
After two years in jail, a stranger visited Sukhjot and the others. They had never set eyes on him before, never heard of him. But there he was, offering to help them out. “I read about this incident in a newspaper. I met the men in prison. I realised that it was a group clash and a man had got killed. One of these men could have been a victim too. They were not hardened criminals. It was an incident that went wrong. I felt they should not spend the rest of their lives in prison. Since I am from a place [Punjab], where people are closely attached to their children, I thought of helping them. That’s how it all began,” Oberoi says.
Sukhjot Singh was released from Sharjah prison in 2013. “It is extremely difficult for any man to come to terms with his son’s imminent death in a prison in some other country, in a case that you don’t understand, and you can’t do anything to get him out. When a person like SP Singh emerges and brings back your son, there are no words to explain what he means to us,” Jagdev Singh, Sukhjot’s father, says.
One day in April this year, Oberoi gets a visitor at his office in Deira, Dubai. Jameel Akhtar is from Bihar, and his 23-year-old son Firoz has been in Sharjah jail for the last three years in a case of financial fraud. The court has imposed a fine of 42,770 AED (approximately Rs 7.4 lakh) on Firoz.
Oberoi had told Jameel earlier to try and raise some money by himself first. Now, Jameel, a tailor in a small village of Siwan district in Bihar, has come to tell Oberoi that he has collected 37,000 AED. Barely has he uttered the words that Oberoi pulls out a wad of notes from his pocket, 5,000 AED in all, and hands it over to Jameel.
“Here is the balance amount. Go and get your son out of jail,” Oberoi says. Jameel appears stunned. He breaks down and touches Oberoi’s feet.
“I met Firoz during my visit to Sharjah jail about two years ago. He belongs to a very poor family. His father Jameel met me in 2015 and sought financial help. I told him that since the court has held his son guilty, he should first raise the money by himself. But when he exhausts all his resources, he should come to me. Today, I kept my word,” Oberoi says.