THEY TOO HAVE SERVED
In a merit-driven selection, unknown names made it to the Padma awards list
Some cynicism and political worldliness have generally been assumed to play a role in the selection of Padma awards. But there will be few who can deny that this year’s relatively short list made space to acknowledge the extraordinary work of ordinary people. There has been some disgruntled criticism of the awards process, most notably from the badminton player Jwala Gutta and the multiple-time billiards world champion Pankaj Advani, but the government has put forward a stout defence.
Much has been made of the online process this year, with nominations required to be made on a website rather than sent by post. It is a process that has resulted in double the nominations made in a normal year and more transparency. The prime minister reportedly took a personal interest. The awards, he said, according to those privy to the discussions, “should be an instrument to reward true merit...create a sense of pride in people”. Led by a selection panel that had the likes of badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, actor Waheeda Rehman and RSS leader S. Gurumurthy, efforts were made to follow the PM’s instructions of ensuring “that the culture of patronage and nepotism is brought to an end”. A selection committee member who chose to remain anonymous said past awards were handed out as favours: “The doctors of VIP patients invariably won awards. Too often selection committees were swayed by who’d written the letter of recommendation rather than the nominee’s contributions.” In election years, the number of awardees swelled to over a hundred.
Satpal Chauhan, joint secretary in the ministry of home affairs (MHA), who played a pivotal role in the process, says “selection was not just about merit, but A+ merit”. And so Karimul Haque, 52, a tea garden worker making Rs 5,000 a month, found himself at Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive a Padma Shri. Having lost his mother to a heart attack, Haque made it his life’s work to ensure people in need from his
village in West Bengal could get to hospital quickly. He converted his motorcycle into a rudimentary ambulance for the purpose. Sometimes, a journey of 15 kilometres was required; when the river was in spate, a 45 km detour. In two decades, he has taken 3,500 people to hospital, saving hundreds of lives. “That someone should call me to Delhi to give me an award,” he says, “is like a dream.”
Dr Ram Yadav too thought he was in a dream when he was told that his 91-year-old mother, Bhakti Yadav, a gynaecologist, had been selected to receive a Padma Shri for helping some 88,000 poor women deliver their babies. She was nominated by the MHA’s own research team. Other awardees ran from famous politicians and athletes to folk singers Jitendra Haripal and Sukri Bommagowda, the ‘Nightingale of Halakki’, who has been performing for 58 years. Meenakshi Amma, 76, from Kerala, has been teaching Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest martial arts in the world for decades, while another awardee, Daripalli Ramaiah from Telangana, has planted over 10 million trees. This year’s list belonged to India’s everyman.
WONDERLAND Clockwise from above: Padma Shri winners Dr Bhakti Yadav, Meenakshi Amma, Sukri Bommagowda, Daripalli Ramaiah and Karimul Haque