India Today - - UPFRONT - By Uday Mahurkar

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

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