KOCHI // A long-term resident of the UAE was last night awarded India's highest honour for its citizens overseas.
Bava Pandalingal, 69, was recognised for more than four decades of community service, helping labourers in need and setting up schools for the children of Indian expatriates in the UAE.
The Bharatiya Pravasi Samman Award was presented by the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, on the final day of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, an annual gathering of non-resident Indians.
"This is highly appreciated and I am very excited about receiving this prestigious award," Mr Pandalingal said. "I feel this is a recognition for the social, educational and cultural work I have done for the community and the country."
Mr Pandalingal, who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1968, is one of the founders of the Indian Islamic Centre in Abu Dhabi, which opened its doors in 1971.
He also helped to set up the Abu Dhabi Indian School in 1975, starting with 50 places for children of Indian migrants. The school is now considered one of the best schools for Indian expatriates, and has grown to accommodate 1,000 pupils.
"His contribution to education is admirable. This award is richly deserved," said Vijay Mathu, principal of the Abu Dhabi Indian School. Mr Pandalingal sits on the school's board of governors and oversees the creation of new infrastructure.
"You just have to give him an idea of what you want, and he goes around looking for the best people to do the job. He is someone who gets things done quickly, and all this is voluntary," said Mr Mathu.
Mr Pandalingal is also chairman of Al Noor Indian Islamic School in Abu Dhabi, which teaches 1,200 pupils. He also founded the Indian Islahi Islamic School in Abu Dhabi in 1983.
A civil engineer, Mr Pandalingal first worked with a British consultancy in Abu Dhabi before joining the emirate's public works department and then another construction company. In that time, he learnt to speak and write Arabic.
He said he was always drawn to the plight of those less fortunate.
"From the beginning, I had this feeling that I must help those around me. It was always on my mind. There were a lot of people arriving without proper documents to work," he said.
"At that time, under Sheikh Zayed's vision, Abu Dhabi was being developed and there was a flood of workers and the government wanted to regularise their status."
The closest Indian embassy to the UAE at that time was in Muscat, Oman.
"We helped with passports, with documents people needed to stay legally in the country," he said.
Mr Pandalingal later also helped people to find jobs and acted as a mediator for workers having trouble with their companies.
Over the years, the challenges the Indian community faced changed. As families of expatriate Indians started to arrive in the UAE, including Mr Pandalingal's own family in 1971, his focus turned to education.
He and his wife Kadija, whom he married in 1968, have three daughters and a son. His son Ashraf is an engineer, and two of his daughters, Ayesha and Asma, are doctors. His eldest daughter, Rasiya, is a homemaker.
Ashraf, 44, remembers a childhood spent with a father who was unable to play with them in the evenings "because he was always saying that he had to go help someone at the Indian Islamic Centre".
"As a child I did not realise what he was. Now I realise what he is," Ashraf said.
Mr Pandalingal said he grew up in a middle class family in Kerala and saw his parents struggle to make ends meet. He wanted to be a doctor but studied engineering instead because the cost of medical school was too high.
"He was able to give us the best possible education," said Ayesha, his third daughter. "We also inherited his tendencies to help everyone around us in whatever way we can."
"I never say no to anybody. Whatever I have, I give," Mr Pandalingal said.
He was one of 15 individuals and organisations who received their awards last night. Also recognised for their community service are Dr Satendra Kumar Singh (New Zealand); Ashok Shambhomal Vaswani (Republic of Guinea); Sri Ravindran Menon (Malaysia); the Indian Doctors Forum, Kuwait; and the Australia India Society of Victoria.
The president of Mauritius, Rajkeswur Purryag; Subash Razdan (United States); and Ismail Ebrahim (South Africa) were recognised for their public service. Gilbert Canababy Moutien (Reunion Island) and K T Rabeeulla (Saudi Arabia) were honoured for their achievements in business; Dr Gursharan Singh Chhatwal (Germany) for science; Patricia Maria Rozario (UK) for music; Dr Narendra Ramakrishna Kumar (USA) for health care; and Dr Rasik Vihari Joshi (Mexico) for literature.
Nominations for the award are made by Indian missions overseas.