According to government estimates,about half of the 2.8 million Indians in Saudi Arabia managed,in the last six months,to fulfill the legal requirement to stay on in that country after the November 3 Nitaqat deadline ran out. Ponnakkaran Muhammed of Malappuram district was not among them.
The 65-year-old arrived in his village Mattathoor on Tuesday evening,his first visit home after 18 years. He had spent 14 of those years as an illegal immigrant.
In his absence,three of his daughters were married,and his youngest son,who was born a few months after he boarded the flight to Riyadh in 1995,is now a plus-2 student. Many of his relatives are dead.
Ponnakkaran Muhammed had gone to Saudi to work as a tailor. Many from my village were in the Gulf,and I too wanted to go. I spent Rs 20,000 on the visa, he said.
Four years later,however,he had no money to renew the visa,and continued to live as an illegal immigrant in Ruma,north of Riyadh.
I could not manage the money to renew the visa because my entire savings were sent home for the wedding of my eldest daughter. I became an illegal resident. Had it not been for the government order to either regularise work permits or leave,I would still have been there, Ponnakkaran Muhammed said.
Saudi Arabias Nitaqat (labour) law,implemented in March 2013,made it mandatory for employers to have one Saudi citizen in every 10 employees. Foreign workers without a valid work permit were ordered to regularise their stay or leave by July 3,a deadline that was subsequently extended to November 3.
Ponnakkaran Muhammed said his first tailors job did not last long,and he moved from one job to another. But he toiled in laundries for the most part.
My day started at 7 am and continued until 11 pm. My monthly income was only 500 Saudi riyals (currently about 8,300 rupees). Yet,I managed to send some money home.
It was impossible to return to India,he said. If you go to the airport with the intention of leaving forever,officials ask for documents. I had none. I had surrendered my passport to my first employer,who had died. I could not ask anyone for money to buy a ticket to go home. Every worker I met was struggling to save something. I couldnt have asked them. I had no option but to suffer my anguish and loneliness.
He got nothing out of his life in the Gulf,Ponnakkaran Muhammed said. All that I could bring back was a few packets of sweets for my five grandchildren. I couldnt buy some toys for them. The 10 cents of land the family owned was sold to meet domestic expenses when I was away.
Sometimes,in the early years,I would call one of the three fixed line phones in the village and ask for my wife Pathumma. But by the time she rushed to the phone,my turn at the telephone in Saudi would be over. It was only after mobile phones became common that I was able to hear the voices of my wife,five daughters and son.
Even when Ponnakkaran Muhammed could finally return,the passage was not easy. There were no documents to prove he was Indian,and the family had to send police reports to the embassy. The pass the embassy gave him to leave expired because he could not find the money for a ticket. It was finally an expats organisation that last week arranged the money for his ticket.