S. P. Singh Oberoi, President of Dubai-based NGO Sarbat Da Bhala, is currently working on a project in Punjab to build homes for elderly cancer patients. Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

Dubai: He has saved 54 people from death sentences or life in prison. He is now working to save another 30 inmates of various nationalities.

Meet 59-year-old S.P. Singh Oberoi, a Dubai-based Indian businessman and a well-known name in UAE prisons.

“I believe that none of us are born criminals. None of us want to land up on the wrong side of the law but at times we are governed by circumstances,” said Oberoi, who paid Dh3.4 million in blood money to enable 17 Indians to walk free from jail.

The men were on death row for murdering a Pakistani in Sharjah in January 2009.

“I learnt about them from the local newspapers. The news left me thinking of the emotional trauma and stress their families back home in Punjab, India, must have been experiencing. I was quite disturbed and decided to take up their case.”

Their case served as a catalyst and steered him towards making regular visits to prisons in the UAE. Gradually his offer to help was extended to other nationalities languishing in UAE jails.

“Unlike India, where access to those on death row or serving life sentences is banned, I found the UAE jail authorities quite humane. But I got a lot of support from the Indian diplomatic missions in the UAE. Contrary to what you read in newspapers, during my interaction with the police and the jail authorities over here, I realised that they are genuinely concerned about prisoner welfare. The inmates are well looked after. For example, when the 17 Indians were in jail, I arranged a meeting with their parents. Some of the parents were unable to recognise their children because of the weight they had gained while in jail,” said Oberoi. Pulling out what looked like an identity card from his pocket, he pointed to a passport-sized black and white photograph of a young man in a turban.

“This is me in the early 1970s. I started off as a mechanic. In those days I used to earn Rs300. I carry this card with me everywhere. It keeps me firmly rooted and reminds me of who and what I used to be and from where I began my journey to become a successful businessman. I am not a graduate. I left my studies after I completed grade 10. If you ask me why I did not pursue my studies, my answer would be, ‘I don’t know’.”

Oberoi keeps a contact list of all the inmates he has helped and keeps a close eye on their welfare over the telephone, or if time permits, by visiting their homes in India.

Second chance

“I have told each one of them that they are behind bars for the crime they have committed. The majority of them were involved in group fights. I try to make them realise that they have lost an opportunity to make a good living by ending up in jail and putting their families back home in shame. Many of those released are employed in their home country while some, who were unable to get a job, were hired by my companies in India. They made a mistake in life but that does not mean that they should not be given a second chance.”

Oberoi started his career as a mechanic in 1975 and later went on to launch a material supply and construction company in India called Pritam Singh and Sons.

“This company handled projects such as the National Highway, roads and bridges, and the railway line from Beas to Goindwal Sahib in Punjab. I moved to Dubai In 1993 and started my own general trading company. After 18 years of hard work today I head the Dubai Grand Hotel and the Apex Group of Companies. God Almighty has blessed me with enough wealth and it becomes my duty to return it to the community by helping others. It makes me feel content and peaceful, but that does not mean that I do not spend on myself and my family. Of course I do. In my opinion if a man is not able to spend on himself he will never be able to spend on others. But this again is my personal opinion, others might differ,” said Oberoi who has recently moved home from The Address to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world.

Oberoi, who is associated with various social organisations in his hometown of Punjab. also runs a trust called Sarbat Da Bhala, which has so far conducted 18,000 mass marriages for Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, provided education for special needs children, sponsored more than 425 students for higher education as well as provided financial aid to various charities and hospitals.

He is currently working on a project in Punjab where he plans to build homes for elderly cancer patients.

“I have come across many families where elderly cancer patients are neglected by their children. I plan to build individual rooms with all basic facilities where these elderly cancer patients can spend their last days of their life in care,” he said, brushing aside a question about authorities in India who asked for a probe into his finances a couple of years ago.

“I run a clean business and have nothing to hide. Everything that I do or did has been done in keeping with the legal framework. My financial records are clean,” said Oberoi, who has opened a separate bank account to help inmates who have completed their jail terms but are unable to buy air tickets home.