What a Welcome hange! Instead of ‘political favouritism’ and ‘lobbying’, ‘deserving’ and ‘unsung heroes’ are some of the epithets used for most of the Padma Awardees
K G Suresh
Every year, the Padma awards used to hog the limelight more for the wrong reasons thereby defeating the very purpose for which the national honours were instituted in the first place. Retired politicians from the ruling dispensation, some Bollywood and sports celebrities considered closer to the powers that be and mostly Delhi based “intelligentsia” including doctors found a place in the list which over the years had become controversial for the choice of nominees.
The awards had always raised eyebrows in the past with allegations of political favouritism, lobbying, partisan approach, regional biases and even corruption. It was not uncommon to see media reports questioning the credentials of a Padma awardee.
For a change, “deserving”, well deserved, meritorious were some of the epithets used in the public domain for most of the Padma awardees announced ahead of the Republic Day this year.
What a welcome change! Even the usually critical media featured special stories on “Unsung Heroes” who made it to the prestigious list this year.
And the change was not by chance but by choice. There was a conscious, planned and deliberate effort to restore the pristine glory of the awards through a credible and transparent process.
The focus of this year’s Padma awards, which honours people from different walks of life who have devoted their lives in the service of the nation, was on recognising the talent of unknown and unsung heroes of the country. To begin with, the Government opted for online nominations to ensure the much needed transparency in the entire process. Over 18,000 nominations for 4,000 nominees were received online and deserving candidates were chosen through a rigorous selection process. Media reports suggested that the criteria of selection was not just excellence, but ‘excellence plus’.
And the outcome: the awards list this time around was the shortest with only 89 being announced. Except for singers Anuradha Paudwal and Kailash Kher, Bollywood stayed out of the limelight. Similarly, the Delhi coterie also seems to be fast losing grip of the coveted honours as only five people from the national capital could find a place in the list. Only four politicians figured in the list and in a rare gesture of political goodwill in these times of confrontational politics, the list featured names cutting across the political spectrum — from NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma to BJP veterans, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sunderlal Patwa.
The awardees among foreigners include Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, a Sanskrit scholar who propagated the language across the world and Anuradha Koirala from Nepal, who got Padmashri for social service.
Sport icons including Virat Kohli, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar who have made India proud, also made it to the list.
The awards also honoured spiritual leaders, social workers and academicians who silently worked and brought about major transformations in the society. They included Jaggi Vasudev , the late political commentator Cho Ramaswamy, Nivedita Raghunath Bhide of the Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari, writer-historian-activist the French-born Coimbatore settled Michel Danino, who has been working tirelessly towards promoting India”s heritage and Chamu Krishna Shastry, co-founder of the Samskrita Bharati movement, which aims to make Sanskrit popular across the world as a conversational language.
But what has come for appreciation and admiration, grudgingly even from the Government’s hardcore critics are the Unsung Heroes whose contribution has been celebrated this year as never before.
From Bipin Ganatra, popularly known as Kolkata’s ‘Fireman’, who has volunteered his services to the fire department for the last four decades on one hand, to 76-year old Meenakshi Amma, a Kalayaripattu trainer from Kerala, on the other.
In an era when the medical profession is being increasingly viewed as becoming mercenary, 91-year old Dr Bhakti Yadav from Indore has been honoured for selflessly treating her patients for free over the last seven decades. Popularly known as “Doctor Dadi”, Yadav, 91, is the first woman from Indore to hold an MBBS degree. She has helped deliver thousands of babies.
Also in a recognition accorded to the nation’s hidden talent, among the awardees is 75-year-old Sukri Bommagowda, known as the nightingale of the Halakki Vokkaliga tribes besides Imrat Khan, a folk singer from West Bengal and Jitendra Haripal from neighbouring Odisha. A school dropout and leading exponent of Kosli-Sambalpuri music, Haripal, popular as “Rangabati ki Awaz”, is nominated for the Padma Shri for his contribution to Odhisa’s most popular recorded song “Rangabati”.
Another significant Padma Shri awardee is Shekhar Naik, captain of Indian cricket team of visually challenged. Just Thirty-year-old, Naik had led the Indian team to victory in the first T20 World Cup in 2012 and ODI World Cup in 2014.
Mariyappan Thangavelu, a gold medallist at Rio Paralympics 2016, is the epitome of sheer grit and determination in the face of insurmountable difficulties. Yet, the born fighter that he is, Thangavelu, who suffered permanent disability in the right leg when he was run over by a drunk bus driver, refused to yield.
Then there is Daripalli Ramaiah, the green crusader has planted millions of trees. This native of Telangana’s Khammam district carries seeds and plants them wherever he spots barren ground.
Widely known but not adequately recognised has been one of Punjab’s most famous environmentalists, Balbir Singh Seechewal who revived the state’s Kali Bein River.
The Government also recognised Dr Mapuskar, who is also popular as “Swacchhta Doot” in Maharashtra. He is a sanitation pioneer who dedicated himself to Swachh Bharat Mission 50 years ago, making his Dehu village open defecation free.
Also honoured this year and deservedly so is Dr Subroto Das, who set up 108 member to deal with highway emergency. It was his NGO that offered technical expertise for setting up the unified 108 number that runs, free of cost, in over 20 states.
Among the other lesser known heroes who have got their due were Genabhai Dargabhai Patel, who transformed drought-affected land into profitable pomegranate farms in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, Ela Ahmad, 81, from Assam, who has been selected for running the only magazine for women in the northeast since 1970, Girish Bhardwaj, who has been building bridges in remote villages all over India (Known as Sethu (bridge) Bandhu (friend), he has built over 100 low-cost bridges in states like Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha) and Karimul Haque, a tea plantation worker hailing from West Bengal’s Dhalabari village, who runs a bike transport service to help locals access medical services swiftly
Other awardees include Chintakindi Mallesham, the creator of the Laxmi ASU machine, which makes the weaving of Andhra Pradesh’s iconic Pochampally silk sarees less laborious and time-consuming.
Among the well-known personalities decorated this year are former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, Madhubani painter Baoa Devi, Odia actor Sadhu Meher, noted singer KJ Yesudas and Dr Suniti Solomon, known for her pioneering achievements in AIDS research.
From Varanasi, noted Sanskrit scholar Professor Devi Prasad Dwivedi has been felicitated with Padma Bhushan, while another scholar Harihar Kripalu Tripathi has been honoured with Padma Shri award.
By honouring such distinguished and deserving personalities with the nation’s top civilian awards, the Government has indeed restored the honour and prestige of these awards.
(The writer is Director General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi)