From Tulasi Gowda to Harekala Hajabba: 6 inspiring stories of Padma Awardees 2020

One of the highest civilian honours in India, the Padma Awards are given for exceptional and distinguished service in a particular field. Among the 119 awardees of the year 2020 is 72-year old Tulasi Gowda, environmentalist and an 'encyclopaedia of forests', who has planted over 30,000 saplings.

The official ceremony of Padma Awards for the year 2020, which was pushed ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was held on November 8 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan where President Ram Nath Kovind presented the awards to 119 recipients, of which about 30 belonged to the field of social work.

One of the highest civilian honours in India, the awards are given in three categories: Padma Vibhushan, for exceptional and distinguished service, Padma Bhushan, distinguished service of higher order and Padma Shri, for distinguished service.

Here is a look at some of the inspiring stories of Padma Awardees in the field of social work:

Tulasi Gowda

The 72-year-old environmentalist from Karnataka has planted more than 30,000 saplings and has been involved in environmental conservation activities for the past six decades. She was conferred the Padma Shri award for her contribution to the protection of the environment.

A member of the indigenous Halakki tribe, she is also known as an 'encyclopaedia of forests' due to her extensive knowledge of trees and herbs.

Since the age of 12, Gowda has planted and nurtured thousands of trees. She also joined the forest department as a temporary volunteer, where she was recognised for her dedication to nature preservation. She was later offered a permanent job in the department. Today, the environmentalist continues to nurture plants and share her vast knowledge with the younger generation to promote the importance of environmental conservation.

Mohammad Shareef

Mohammad Shareef is a cycle mechanic turned social worker. Also known as the 'last rites samaritan' and Shareef Chacha from Ayodhya, he performs the last rites of thousands of unclaimed dead bodies of all religions with full dignity.

Image: PIB Social worker Mohammad Shareef (L) receives Padma Shri award.

In the last 25 years, he has performed the last rites of more than 25,000 unclaimed bodies in and around Faizabad.

Harekala Hajabba

An orange vendor in Mangaluru, Karnataka, Harekala Hajabba saved money from his daily earnings of Rs 150 to build a school in his village.

His passion for education was ignited when a few foreign tourists asked him the price of oranges. Harekala couldn’t understand their question, which was asked in English. This is when he decided to set up a school for children from families like his, using his savings.

Furthermore, his village Newpadapu did not have a school for many years and all the village children were deprived of their right to education. Then, in 2000, Harekala invested all his life savings and started a school on one acre of land. Today, the school has 175 students with classes up to the 10th standard.

Shyam Sunder Paliwal

Popularly known as ‘Father of Eco-Feminism’, Shyam Sunder Paliwal is the creator of Piplantri Model Village, where 111 trees are planted on the birth of every girl child. A former Piplantri village council head in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, Paliwal lost his daughter in 2006, which led him to begin a tree-planting campaign in her memory.

Image: PIB

The village panchayat today opens a fixed bank deposit account in the name of newborn girls as part of the campaign. Parents of the girls are encouraged to nurture the saplings and also sign an affidavit saying they would not marry off their daughters before she completes 18 years of age. According to Shyam, the focus of the campaign has been the girl child, water and trees, and their protection and conservation.

Dr Birubala Rabha

A social activist from Assam, Dr Birubala Rabha is fighting against the social menace of witch-hunting prevalent in the state, especially among the tribal communities. After dealing with personal struggles, she heard stories of people in her village being labelled 'witches'. Several women from the neighbouring village had been brutally raped and exiled because they were claimed to be 'witches'.

Image: PIB

That was her wake up call. Since then, Dr Rabha has been campaigning against witchcraft and witch-hunting, fighting for the cause for more than 15 years now. Rabha has travelled far and wide to spread awareness about the mistreatment of women.

Her perseverance has led to the state passing the Assam Witch Hunting Act in 2015.

Chultim Chhonjor

A social activist from Ladakh, Chultim Chhonjor single-handedly constructed a 40-km stretch of NPD road from Ramjak to Kargyak village in Ladakh. For years, people of Chhonjor’s village had been complaining about the hilly roads and inaccessible paths in the area. Due to these issues, villagers were deprived of facilities and services. To make things worse, there was no medical infrastructure.

Image: PIB / Chultim Chhonjor (L)

After getting no positive response or action from the authorities, Chultim decided to take matters into his own hands. He spent almost all his money saved to build the road. In recognition of his efforts, Chultim has been awarded the Padma Shree.

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti