While a few senior and known legends of India recently refused Centre’s Padma awards and made the annual awards a topic of discussion, others welcomed the lesser-known Indians that made to the list for their consistent service to humankind, nature, art and other areas.
Announced on January 25, the new list of these unsung heroes, to be felicitated later this year in a grand ceremony, includes a paraplegic social worker working for the differently-abled, a 102-year-old Gandhian busy spreading the principles of Mahatma, a US-returned paediatrician providing affordable healthcare in Gujarat, and a diamond merchant from Surat better known for his water conservation efforts.
Chosen for the Padma Shri, most of these changemakers started with limited or no resources, sometimes with no education, physical strength and family support, but nonetheless persistently chased their missions of serving the underserved.
Shakuntala Choudhary, a Gandhian and freedom fighter from Kamrup, Assam, has been silently promoting the value of service for the last seven decades. The 102-year-old has been led by the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. She has founded Gram Seva Kendras across North-East, which have made sustainable efforts in the field of social work and worked for villagers, especially women and children, through Stree Shakti Jagaran movement even in adverse times.
An outstanding case, Kerala’s Kariveppil Rabiya is paralysed from the neck below. The 55-year-old social worker from Malappuram, despite being afflicted with polio at 12, has relentlessly served the differently-abled. She started six schools for children with special needs and trained and empowered more than 250 women through a small-scale manufacturing unit.
Gujarat’s Gamit Ramilaben Raysingbhai has been chosen for the award for her extensive efforts in the areas of education, healthcare and sanitation at the grassroots level. The tribal social worker from Tapi had helped nine villages become open-defecation free. She has created over 300 sanitary units and held awareness events on open defecation and sickle cell anaemia.
The women success stories in the list come from all over the country. One of them is Prabhaben Shah, a 91-year-old social worker from the union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu. Shah has been working for women empowerment and environment protection for over six decades. She has conducted awareness programmes, organised Vastra Bank for flood victims in Kutch, and started a canteen for patients and economically weaker people in hospitals.
The latest list of Padma Awards comprises four Padma Vibhushan, 17 Padma Bhushan and 107 Padma Shri Awards. Of these, 34 awardees are women. The list has 13 social workers, all Padma Shri, coming from all over India.
Srimad Baba Balia from Odisha has been working in the diverse areas of environment protection, gender equality, organ donation and fight against social evils, apart from protecting Odia art and culture. Bihar’s Acharya Chandana Ji Maharaj laid the foundation of Veerayatan in Rajgir and has been doing public service by helping people financially along with free medical and education for 53 years. Today, the NGO has centres in more than 10 countries working in the field of health, education and spirituality.
In 1984, Om Prakash Gandhi of Yamunanagar established Kanya Gurukul (Gurjar Kanya Vidhya Mandir School) in Devdhar village on 12-acre land in 1985 with donations from people to work in the field of women education. Basanti Devi, an Indian environmentalist from Almora, Uttarakhand, has dedicated herself to the empowerment of women and panchayats. Savji Dholakia, 59-year-old diamond merchant from Surat, has built over 75 ponds on barren government land in various villages of Saurashtra.
S Damodaran, a social worker from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, has devoted his life to promoting household toilet facilities for the rural, urban and people living in the coastal and tribal regions. Under his guidance, more than 6,00,000 household toilets were promoted. These toilets are based on a sustainable model and are working well today, creating a positive impact in the lives of more than 30,00,000 people so far.
Prem Singh from Punjab, who is campaigning for the all-around development of leprosy patients, has been working in this direction for the last 30 years. So far, more than 1 thousand people have been provided treatment and 60 percent of these patients are above 60 years of age. He sold his land, his wife jewellery and even took loans to help people in need.
Another changemaker from Punjab was Baba Iqbal Singh Ji, who ran 129 CBSE-affiliated English medium schools with more than 70,000 children, with most students coming from five rural North Indian states. He was involved in every facet of community life, i.e., schools, hospitals, colleges, women care centres and de-addiction centres. With his team, he set up Akal Charitable Hospital at Baru Sahib, Sirmaur, which provides medical care to rural poor and other deprived sections. He passed away at the age of 96 on January 29, 2022, in Baru Sahib, just four days after being chosen for the Padam Shri.