Mr K V Shamsudeen almost never fails to answer his mobile phone when it rings. As chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, an organisation dedicated to assisting troubled lower- and middle-income Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), he says the calls are many, often numbering more than 40 in a day. "Sometimes all one can offer as assistance is a patient ear," he says, introducing Mr M Kumar, a 52-year-old Indian trapped in deep debt.
Mr Kumar, a hospital technician, has lived in Dubai since 1984 and has a total monthly household income of Dh 8,500. His debt troubles began in 2001, when he borrowed Dh50,000 from Union National Bank to help a neighbour set up a cafeteria in Ajman. Mr Kumar never visited the cafeteria, but says it shut down within two months of its opening and the neighbour absconded after repaying him only half the bank loan amount.
Soon after that, Mr Kumar was forced to borrow an additional Dh30,000 from Citibank due to family commitments, including paying for the wedding expenses of his sister and sister-in-law. In order to meet the demands of his family in India, Mr Kumar and his wife withdrew more than Dh150,000 using their 12 credit cards. They descended further into a financial abyss when they borrowed a total of Dh60,000 from three private money lenders to repay their credit card debt.
Out of the family's earnings of Dh8,500, Mr Kumar's expenditures include Dh6,400 of interest payment alone to the illegal moneylenders, who show up at his Deira home to claim the monthly interest. Failure to pay, he says, results in loud threats and verbal abuse. Additionally, Mr Kumar has to pay rent, purchase groceries and educate his three children, as well as find ways to raise funds to repay the principal amount.
"Until last week, the supermarket near my house was giving us free groceries for six months. Now the owner says he can't. I also haven't paid the school fees of my boys in the last three months," says Mr Kumar, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. His red eyes are a direct consequence of insomnia, for which he is undergoing psychiatric treatment. Mr Shamsudeen has been lending his ear to Mr Kumar's problems for the last three months but declines to comment on whether he has helped him financially.
"In this town, you will find thousands of generous people, like the grocery owner," he says, fiddling with his phone. "If I want to send an injured labourer back to India, I can instantly count on the Indian community to pay for a ticket, compensation and educating the victim's children. But I am unable to find anyone to help Kumar," he says, fiddling with his phone. A quick calculation reveals that more than Dh250,000 would be required to relieve Mr Kumar from his debt crisis. "But I'm asked what is the guarantee it won't happen again, because it is the result of financial mismanagement," Mr Shamsudeen says.
The Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, established in the South Indian state of Kerala in 2001, was set up by Mr Shamsudeen to help NRIs in the Gulf countries resettle in their native towns and villages. "In the 30 years that I've lived in the UAE, I've watched many Indians return to India unable to sustain the lifestyle that their families got accustomed to while their men worked and earned in the Gulf. In many instances they don't even have enough money saved up to pay for the basic necessities," he says.
Mr Shamsudeen, who is also a director at Barjeel Geojit Securities, which he describes as a "supermarket of investment products," is primarily concerned with influencing change in financial management among the lower-income NRIs. However, his welfare trust also addresses social issues, including alcoholism, smoking and dowry. Mr Shamsudeen acknowledges that cases such as Mr Kumar's are the result of poor judgement and an inability to stave off the unreasonable demands of his relatives. Sadly, he adds, Mr Kumar's story is typical of individuals in his demographic profile.
"It is customary for the Gulf Indian male to foot the bill for most family expenditures such as weddings, education, funerals, anniversaries and other emergencies. The families in India remain clueless of the hardships endured by the earning males," he says, turning to Mr Kumar and asking him what his family did for leisure and entertainment in Dubai. Mr Kumar stares at a poster of Mahatma Gandhi and says nothing. "Nothing," he says after a long pause. "We used to go out to dinner to a small restaurant in Karama once a month. We have stopped that in the last six months. In the 24 years we've been here, we have never been to a stage show or live event."
"With Kumar, we have to find a cure, but with many others I believe there can be preventative action," says Mr Shamsudeen. Under the umbrella of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, he has travelled throughout the Gulf region - except Saudi Arabia - and conducted 158 free workshops for NRIs over the last 7 years. Lasting two and half hours, each workshop is divided into four segments. The goal is to leave a lasting impression on the attendees and show them the wisdom of planning for their return home.
"Returning NRIs must ensure they have created a source of income to support them - either through a small business or renting an apartment - as we don't have access to state-provided health care or social security," he says. According to Mr Shamsudeen, the first section of the workshop stresses the importance of improving career skills in order to earn a larger income. Other segments focus on the "why to" and "how to" of saving. Although Indians by nature are strerotyped as frugal when it comes to spending, Mr Shamsudeen observes that they can be equally wasteful.
"They don't live beyond their means," he says of the lower-income Indians, "but they don't plan adequately, and when it comes to big events such as weddings there is a lot of extra and unnecessary spending." Mr Shamsudeen, who also has a weekly radio show on a Malayalam-language channel, advocates a policy of micro-saving and systematic investment and repeatedly highlights the "magic of compounding", referring to Mr Kumar as an example.
"If he had saved Rs1,000 (about Dh100) every month for 30 years, he could have saved Rs36,00,000 (about Dh360,000) by now and could have bought a home," he says. "I am a saver by nature and derive enormous satisfaction at being able to share the experiences that I have been fortunate to have acquired with regards to investing," Mr Shamsudeen says. Gulf NRIs - those both in the lower- and middle-income brackets -are advised to start saving in small doses. Mr Shamsudeen says even "a dirham a day" can make a substantial difference in the long term, particularly when it's time to return to home countries.
To get a better idea about the attitudes of labourers' family members back home, Mr Shamsudeen conducted four "reverse workshops" in India last August. The sessions were for dependents whose men were living as forced bachelors in the Gulf. "I asked the wives, sisters, children and siblings of these men if any of them knew what their men were working as, and not one said yes". "If change has to come about, workshops are one way, but society must be made aware of the lives of these self-sacrificing souls that work in the Gulf countries," says Mr Shamsudeen, who also meets regularly with Indian government officials to discuss issues facing NRIs in the region. "The large workforce of returning expatriate Indians can contribute greatly to Indian society in terms of bringing an international expertise and professionalism. I hope there are new government and private-sector initiatives in India that tap into this important pool of talent," he says.
He remains largely optimistic - even about Mr Kumar. "In three decades I have seen many benefits introduced for NRIs by the Indian government that have encouraged investments in the Indian capital market. I do believe that with the right approach social change, too, will come about and families will become more understanding of their unsung heroes," he says.