AFTER the Bharat Ratna, the Padma Awards are among the highest civilian honours in India. Over the years, exceptional people have been nominated for their distinguished service in various fields of activity and service.

The Padma Awards are announced annually on the eve of Republic Day. They are given in three categories: Padma Vibhushan (for exceptional and distinguished service), Padma Bhushan (distinguished service of high order) and Padma Shri (distinguished service). The nomination for Padma Awards is open to the public and self-nomination is also accepted.

Of late, several ‘unsung heroes’ have been conferred with the Padma Awards. Some of these are not even aware that these awards exist! The President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, recently conferred the Padma Awards for 2020 and 2021 to the winners at an impressive ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Here, we look at some awardees who have been doing social work for decades, expecting nothing in return.

Harekala Hajabba: The Orange-selling Educator

It all started with a foreign tourist couple asking Harekala Hajabba of Mangalore, the price of the oranges he was selling in English. As he could not understand them, he felt embarrassed at his lack of education. This made him take a decision to build a school so nobody faced such embarrassment.

Padma Awards - Harekala Hajabba

It took a few years for him to save the money from his meagre income, but he finally did build a school at his village Newpadpu, around 40 kilometres south of Mangalore. Hundreds of children receive free education in Hajabba’s school. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his efforts.

Chhultim Chhonjor: The Mountain Man

Social activist Chhultim Chhonjor received the fourth highest civilian award, Padma Shri, for single-handedly constructing a 38-km stretch of road from Ramjak to Kargyak village in Ladakh.

Padma Awards - Chhultim Chhonjor

As travel between his remote village Ramjak and other places with better medical and facilities had become very difficult because of the terrain, Chhonjor decided to do something about it. He bought a heavy construction vehicle to build the road with the money he had saved.

Prakash Kaur: Mother to Abandoned Girls

Prakash Kaur was abandoned by her parents in Jalandhar soon after being born and was raised in a Nari Niketan. She was just 24 when she started the ‘Unique Home’ from a single room in Jalandhar. Today, she takes care of hundreds of abandoned girls who are given housing, food and care. Many girls raised by Prakash Kaur have gone on to do well in life.

Padma Awards - Prakash Kaur

Mohammad Shareef: The Last Rites Samaritan

Mohammad Shareef is a bicycle mechanic by profession, but he is well-known for performing the last rites of thousands of unclaimed dead bodies for more than 25 years. ‘Shareef Chacha’, as he is called in Ayodhya, is said to have performed last rites on over 25,000 unclaimed bodies, according to the religious customs of the dead person.

Padma Awards - Mohammad Shareef

According to Shareef, he took to social service in 1992 after a horrific incident in which his son Raees was murdered during communal tensions. Shareef is over 80 and he is a Padma Shri awardee.

Jagdish Lal Ahuja: The ‘Langar Baba’

Born in Peshawar in Pakistan, Jagdish Lal Ahuja, crossed over to India after Partition in 1947. He was just 12 years old at that time. But he built his life and did well in business.

Padma Awards - Jagdish Lal Ahuja

On his son’s eighth birthday, he organised a ‘langar,’ or free kitchen for street children. That changed his life. He saw the joy on the children’s faces and he decided to organise a langar every day. And he has been doing it for decades. Called the ‘Langar Baba’ in Chandigarh, he has been awarded the Padma Shri.

Tulsi Gowda: The Forester

84-year-old Tulsi Gowda used to work with Karnataka forest department’s nursery in Honnalli village in the state’s Uttar Kannada district and has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, including many that her tribal community Halakki Vokkalu considered important.

Padma Awards - Tulsi Gowda

This barefoot ecologist continues to work even after retirement from the department. Tulsi has helped to regenerate many trees that were on the verge of extinction. She is called the “encyclopaedia of forest” because of her intimate knowledge of the trees and her community calls her “vruksha devata” (the goddess of trees). The country conferred Padma Shri for her tireless efforts.

Sundaram Verma: Growing Forests in Arid Land

A native of Sikar district in Rajasthan, Sundaram Verma has been on a unique mission to grow forests in the most dry, arid regions of the state and inspiring others to do the same. He has been using the ‘dryland agroforestry’ method that requires only one litre of water during its growing phase.

Padma Awards - Sundaram Verma

A science graduate, he spurned job offers to fine-tune his growing techniques in his farmland and inspire other farmers to do the same. Verma has planted more than 50,000 trees so far and his method of growing trees has been adapted by many around the country. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his work.

Dr Sushovan Banerjee: The ‘One Rupee Doctor’

He is in his eighties, but Dr Sushovan Banerjee continues to attend patients and he has been charging the same amount for decades—one rupee. Banerjee is better known as Ek Takar Daktar’ (One Rupee Doctor) in Bolpur, West Bengal.

Padma Awards - Dr Sushovan Banerjee

According to some estimates, he has treated more than 2 million patients in almost six decades. Banerjee, the Padma Shri awardee for 2020, has found his way into the Guinness World Records to treat the maximum number of patients in his lifetime.

Krishnammal Jagannatha: Provider of Land to the landless

Krishnammal and her husband Sankaralingam Jagannathan founded Land for Tillers’ Freedom (LAFTI) in 1981. The NGO has been working with the marginalised and uplifting their lives by buying them land or through redistribution.

Padma Awards - Krishnammal Jagannatha

According to some estimates, the couple’s efforts resulted in a redistribution of over 32,000 acres to landless Dalits in the state of Bihar alone. LAFTI now constructs houses, distributes domestic animals and provides education and skills training. Although her husband died in 2013, Krishnammal, who has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, continues to work among the marginalised.

Birubala Rabha: Hunts the Witch-hunters

The state of Assam was compelled to pass a law called Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Protection and Prevention) Act thanks to efforts of Birubala Rabha. She has been waging a lonely battle against the widespread evil of branding women as ‘daini’ or witch and, more often than not, lynching them.

Padma Awards - Birubala Rabha

The 72-year-old has saved hundreds of women from the jaws of death by blood-thirsty mobs. She has faced threats to her life and was even branded a witch herself, but she remains unfazed. Birubala has been working in the field and talking against the superstition of witchcraft. Although she stays in the Goalpara district of Assam, she travels extensively with her message. She has been awarded the Padma Shri for her efforts.

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