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Government of India


January 28, 2017

Padma Awards 2017: Ordinary Indians with Extraordinary Capabilities

Author: Nivedita Khandekari201712801

Karimul Haque and Nivedita Bhide have nothing in common. Neither education, family background, resources at disposal nor even geographical location, but one thing that both have common is their willingness to serve. There is very little chance that you may have met or read about Nivedita Raghunath Bhide, a social worker, associated with Kanyakumari-headquartered Vivekananda Kendra. Similarly, there is very little chance that you may have met or heard about Karimul Haque, a tea garden worker from West Bengal. But they represent the ordinary Indians with extraordinary capabilities.

“On reaching Kanyakumari, after seeing people of India reeling under poverty and ignorance, Swami Vivekananda concluded that a real purposeful life starts with the question – What can I do for my country?”, Bhide told the students of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Indore on January 12, 2013. Hindustan Times, Indore reported that Bhide, national vice president of Vivekananda Kendra, further described Vivekananda’s journey through India before he reached Kanyakumari in 1892 and then posed a few questions to the impressionable IIM students. (

She herself had left her home in Maharashtra to be a full time worker at Kanyakumari and dedicated her life for social service under the banner of the organization started as a living memorial to Swami Vivekananda. An ordinary Indian doing extraordinary work!

For Karimul Haque, who lost his mother 15 years ago to the absence of a vehicle to take her to the nearest hospital, a chance few years later became his mission. His coworker collapsed in the field in front of him, prompting Haque to tie him to his back and take him on a bike to Jalpaiguri Hospital, 50 kms away. Of course, his coworker’s life was saved.

Haque’s two-wheeler has been the only lifeline for 20-odd villages in and around Dhalabari in that district, part of West Bengal. The area lacks basic healthcare facilities and as reported by Hindustan Times(, ferrying a patient to the hospital in an ambulance is a luxury mostly elusive for a majority in the region. Haque has also started providing basic care at the people’s doorstep after taking intensive training from local doctors. He has single handedly saved over 3000 lives on his mission. So much for an ordinary tea garden worker!

Element of public service, a showcase for ‘excellence plus’

That is what makes Haque and Bhide special. That is what makes them stand out in the crowd of millions and millions of ordinary Indians. And that is what got them selected from more than 18,000 nominations for Padma Awards.

The ‘Selection Criterion’ as mentioned by the Ministry of Home Affairs for Padma awards ( is: “While no rigid criteria or trenchant formula for selection is applied by the Padma Awards Committee, it looks for life time achievements of an individual while making a selection. There ought to be an element of public service in the achievements of the person to be selected. The award is given for ‘special services’ and not merely for long services. It should not be merely excellence in a particular field, but the criteria has to be ‘excellence plus’.” (Emphasis added).

Indeed Haque and Bhide along with several of the unsung heros were honoured this year, in what is being labeled as a clear departure from the past. For instance, 1925 born V Koteswaramma  has had an incredible journey from a small village to an eminent person running educational institutions. She lost her mother when she was just two. The girl from a tiny village Gosala near Vijayawada went on to become the first woman graduate in the Vijayawada taluk thanks to her determination, her endless efforts at overcoming grim odds. As reported by The Hindu (, Koteswaramma knew education opens up new vistas of growth as it did for her – “in those days, it was very difficult to get girls educated as no girls would step out of home after crossing 13 years,” she had told The Hindu correspondent – and so she strove hard to bring that quality change in lives of others.

The state level and national level ‘Best Teacher’ awardee, she set up Montessori Junior and Degree Colleges and later the Montessori College of Education, offering the entire range from KG to PG.

Recognising those working at the grass root level

Government officials said, special emphasis was laid on awarding recognition to those who have been rendering selfless service to the society at the grass root level. “This government has been instrumental in recognizing the work of unsung persons working at grass root level in awarding the Padma awards,” the officials added.

A perfect example can be said that of Sukri Bommagowda, also called the nightingale of Halakki Vokalinga tribes in Karnataka. The singer and performer of tribal folk music for almost six decades now, the social activist led a protest against the sale of liquor at Badigeri haadi (a small hamlet). She has also been instrumental in preserving cultural heritage by way of singing songs to save the culture from disappearing.


Another grass root person is ‘Eco Baba’ Balbir Singh Seechewal, who has resurrected the 160-kms long Kali Bein river in Punjab by mobilising local volunteers and developing the Seechewal Model of underground sewerage system. He mobilized volunteers and raised funds from locals to first create awareness amongst locals to not dispose sewage into the river; led to a clean riverbed; restored natural spring and brought the river to life again. That is what sets him apart. Scores of Gurus have become visible across media scene thanks to their celebrity followers but Seechewal stands out tall amongst them for his humble background and grass root work.

Similar is the case of Shekhar Naik. While his counterparts from other forms of cricket have nearly an iconic following, Naik, a blind cricketer, – who has a career span of 13 years with 32 centuries to his credit in 67 matches – is hardly known to even die hard cricket fans, forget rest of India. Naik was born to a poor family at a nondescript village in Karnataka. He rose literally through the ranks in his cricket matches, fought a untrustworthy system and yet achieved excellence – comparable to his ‘peers who can see’ from cricketing world. But as the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI) is yet to get recognition from the BCCI, Naik and his ilk are made to suffer needlessly.

“Despite representing India for 13 years, I don’t get any money for playing cricket. It is my NGO Samarthanam, where I work as a sports coordinator, which pays me Rs 15,000 as monthly salary,” Naik told Hindustan Times (

Indeed, an ordinary man with extraordinary vision (pun intended). Hope, the Padma award will change the situation for better for Naik.

And hope also that the trend or recognising the unsung will continue every year from now onwards.


*Author is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues. The opinions expressed above are her personal.


Turning Padma Awards into People’s Awards


                                                                   Priyadarshi Dutta

The Padma Awardees List for 2017 has come as a whiff of fresh air.  The ‘unsung heroes’ have captured the imagination of the people. They include a) Meenakshi Amma (76), India’s oldest women exponent of Kalaripayttu b) Girish Bharadwaj (66), who have built over 100 suspension bridges in villages of Karnatka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh c) Bipin Ganatra (59) who is a voluntary fire fighter for the last 40 years in Kolkata d) Dr. Bhakti Yadav (91), the nonagenarian gynecologist from Indore who treats patients for free e) Daripalli Ramaiah (68) who had planted over one crore trees in arid parts of Telangana f) Chintakindi Mallesham (44) the inventor of Laxmi ASU machine that has reduced time and labour for weaving Pochampalli Silk Sarees g) Karimul Haque (52), the tea garden worker in West Bengal who has upgraded his bike into an ambulance h) Dr. Subroto Das (51) who set up unified helpline for accidents of highways etc. All of them are included in the list of 75 Padma Shri winners. This year there is no Bollywood actor on the list.


This happened because for the first time in the 62-year old history of Padma Awards, ordinary citizens were also given the opportunity to nominate others. Previously only union ministers, MoS, Chief Ministers, Governors, Members of Parliament, previous recipients and important persons could nominate others for the Awards. This led to perceived prevalence of lobbying. Being an offline process, the accusation could neither be proved nor disproved.

Nomination process has now been made completely online, to maintain transparency. Lobbying is completely eliminated. Not more than five amongst all Padma Awardees are from Delhi, a refreshing change from a few years ago when not less than 20 would be from the national capital. A total of 89 persons have been awarded Padma Awards – seven Padma Vibhushan, seven Padma Bhushan and 75 Padma Shris. The list is concise, which indicates the high level of scrutiny. In previous years the list extended above 100. The total admissible limit in a year is 120.

The Padma Awards viz. Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri are being conferred every year since 1955 by the President of India upon individuals in recognition to their exceptional/distinguished achievement or service to the society.

Ranked next only to the Bharat Ratna, they constitute the highest civilian awards of the Republic. The Article 18 of the Constitution of India abolished the practice of civilian titles e.g. Knighthood, Rai Bahadur, Khan Bahadur and Sardar Bahadur etc which the British used to confer upon the Indians during the colonial era. The Indian state confers/recognizes no title which is not an academic or military distinction. The Padma Awards, based on recognition merit and contribution, were instituted in 1954. They assumed their present names the following year i.e. 1955. Not being a title, no Padma Award recipient, should prefix or suffix the name of the award to his/her own.

There are nine broad categories viz. art, social work, public affairs, science & engineering, trade and industry, medicine, literature & education, civil services and sports where an individual’s contribution is reckoned with for the award. But a tenth category under which unconventional contributions towards humanity, environment, wildlife etc is recognized also exists. The names are announced on the eve of the Republic Day (January 26) though the actual award ceremony is hosted in Rashtrapati Bhavan in March/April. Being a foreigner or non-citizen is not a bar for receiving a Padma Award. But his work must have someway benefitted India or its standing abroad.

The Awards are decided by a committee constituted for the purpose by the Prime Minister every year. Headed by the Cabinet Secretary, the committee includes Home Secretary, Secretary to the President in addition to four or six eminent persons as members. The recommendations are submitted to the Prime Minister and the President of India in strict confidence for approval.9

The Padma Awards are normally not given posthumously. But the government can consider a posthumous award in highly deserving case. This year there are four posthumous Padma Shri awards. One of them is Dr. Suniti Solomon (1938-2015), a physician and microbiologist who pioneered the AIDS research and prevention activities after the first AIDS case of India was detected in Chennai in 1985. The AIDS is a disease that hit poor and uneducated the most. We owe much to Dr. Suniti Solomon for AIDS awareness in India. It is pity that she could not be honoured during her lifetime.

Another physician Dr. S.V. Mapuskar could not be honoured during his lifetime. He acted as ‘Swachhhata Doot’ or pioneer of rural hygiene and sanitation at least half a century before Swachh Bharat Mission came into existence. In Dehu, a village near Pune, he helped built toilets fitted with bio-gas tank. This resulted in not only clean villages but clean energy. Mapuskar’s NGO toiled for a decade to make those popular in Maharashtra villages and elsewhere. This could serve as one of the model toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission.


Padma, meaning Lotus, is a flower of celestial beauty. Though growing in muck, it remains utterly unsoiled. Most of the unsung heroes, honoured with Padma Awards this year, came from ordinary background. They chose to work amongst ordinary people, to bring a change into their lives. In the process they themselves became extraordinary.

*The author is a columnist and independent researcher based in New Delhi. The views expressed are his personal.

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