Honours for all
In November 2021, the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi held a grand ceremony to honour Padma Award recipients. The otherwise annual event could not be held in 2020 owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, and President of India Ram Nath Kovind conferred the prestigious civilian awards to the 2020 and 2021 recipients at this year’s event. The Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Shri are the country’s highest civilian awards – after the Bharat Ratna – recognising contributions to various fields like social work, science, medicine, literature, sports, and art.
In 2021, many awardees were recognised for their contribution to education, like Usha Yadav, Ram Yatna Shukla and Nanda Prusty. Usha Yadav (Padma Shri for Literature and Education), from Uttar Pradesh, has written about 100 books in Hindi in various genres over the past five decades. Ram Yatna Shukla (Padma Shri, Sanskrit Scholar, author and teacher), also from Uttar Pradesh, is the president of Kashi Vidwat Parishad and is popularly called Abhinav Panini for his contribution towards inventing new ways of Sanskrit grammar and Vedanta teaching and modernisation. Nanda Prusty (Padma Shri in the field of Literature and Education) is 102 years old and provides free education to children and adults at Jajpur, Odisha. He could not study beyond Class VII because of financial trouble. But his motto has been to eradicate illiteracy On receiving his award, Prusty raised his hands to bless President Kovind and the gesture went viral on social media.
The spotlight was also on unsung heroes from last year’s list of winners, who were honoured at the ceremony, especially four recipients, who went barefoot to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Photographs of environmentalist Tulsi Gowda, fruit seller Harekala Hajabba, agriculturist Rahibai Soma Popere and artist Dalavayi Chalapathi Rao walking barefoot and receiving India’s highest civilian awards from President Kovind were widely circulated in media. After the ceremony, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Attended the first of the Padma Award ceremonies for the years 2020 and 2021. I felt extremely happy to see grassroots level achievers being recognised for their exemplary efforts to further public good. Congratulations to all those who have been conferred the #PeoplesPadma.
The success stories of the award recipients, from transgender folk artist Manjamma Jogati to centenarian educationist Nanda Prusty, reiterate that these honours have become all inclusive and are no longer reserved for the elite. Even industrialist Anand Mahindra tweeted that he felt “undeserving” of the award in comparison to the individuals “making seminal contributions to the improvement of society at grassroots levels.” The Mahindra Group chairman was conferred the Padma Bhushan Award 2020 for his contribution in the Trade and Industry. “This Govt has made a long-overdue, transformational shift in the texture of the Padma Awards recipients. Now, the focus is largely on individuals making seminal contributions to the improvement of society at grassroots levels (sic),” he said.
Since the Padma Awards were first introduced in 1954, the type of awardee has slowly been changing, recognising a wider range of people. In 2017, the Central Government, lead by Prime Minister Modi, launched a website where people could nominate candidates. The selection process was also altered and the Padma Awards Committee was expanded. That year, winners included “granny with a sword” Meenakshi Amma, who had been practising and teaching Kalaripayattu for about 70 years, and folk singer Sukri Bommagowda, the “nightingale of Halakki,” for preserving cultural heri-tage and social activism.
The number of nominations for the Padma Awards has also increased in the recent years. The government received 46,000 nominations for the 2020 awards, against only 2,200 in 2014.
The government also launched the Padma Quiz in 2018, an online contest that allows winners to attend the ceremony in person at Rashtrapati Bhavan. From nominating deserving people to getting a chance to attend the ceremony, the government has changed the way people interact with the awards. They are now being referred to as “Peoples’ Padma” because they’re beginning to represent the best of what common Indians have to offer to the development of society and nation.