Meet extraordinary activists who have been conferred the Padma Shri
Shying away from the spotlight, here are Indians who are working every day to make their world a better place
For nearly seven decades, the Padma Shri, one of the highest civil honours in the country, have been conferred on Indian citizens who have made remarkable contributions in various fields, including arts, literature, education, sports, entertainment, etc.
While it is not uncommon to see people who are famous and in the spotlight be felicitated for their efforts, it is even more heartening to see people who have quietly dedicated their lives to serving people around them finally get their due. Here are some of the recipients of this honour who truly made us smile with their unassuming presence and powerful dedication to their cause.
Tulasi Gowda is a septuagenarian tribal woman from Karnataka, who is called the Encyclopaedia of the Forest despite never having been given a formal education. She starting planting trees at the age of 12 and has, till date, planted thousands of trees. She also has extensive knowledge of plants and animal species in the forest, which has earned her the title of "tree goddess" among her tribe, the Halakki Vokkaliga, who believe she speaks the language of the forest.
Tulasi Gowda is able to identify the mother tree of every species of tree in the forest no matter its location. This is important because mother trees are the most connected nodes in the forest in providing nutrition to saplings. She is also a master seed collector from these mother trees that help with the regeneration of entire species of plants.
Tulasi, who lost her father at the age of two and was married at the age of 10, also spends her time educating children of her village about the need to protect the forest. She is also a fierce protector of women’s rights
In 2013, a wild elephant that had wandered into a village in Odisha’s Joranda village attacked and killed Sankarshan Jena’s wife, while they were out for a morning walk. But the 62-year-old conservationist bears no ill will, saying the entire species cannot be held responsible for one animal’s actions. A retired school teacher, today he campaigns for the protection of the animals.
Jena, who was also a teacher, has encouraged his students to enroll in the National Service Scheme at Joranda College and also work towards conservation. Since his retirement, he has been more active and has been going from one village to another to raise awareness about the importance of conservation.
One of the oldest residents of Thekkampatti village near the foothills of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, 106-year-old Pappammal, also known as R Rangama, was awarded the Padma Shri last year for her seven-decade long work with organic farming.
She started working on a 10-acre plot, which she bought when she was in her 30s, from the savings she made running a store in the village. Her day begins at 5.30 am each day and she starts work in the fields by 6 am. Her favourite food to this day is mutton biryani.
The centenarian is also a part of the TN Agricultural University’s advisory committee, and keeps abreast of the latest developments in organic farming by taking part in conferences. She dabbled in politics as well, and was a former ward member of Thekkampatti panchayat and elected as a councillor in Karamadai panchayat union.
Nanda Prusty was conferred the Padma Shri for his work in the field of education. Known to his students as 'Nanda Sir', he dedicated his life to providing free education to both children and adults in Odisha, despite only having studied till Class 7 himself. He had been educating students since Independence to fulfil his dream of eradicating illiteracy. His makeshift school was open seven days a week from dawn to 9 pm. Sadly, in December 2021, he died of COVID-19 complications at the age of 102.
At 125 years old, Swami Sivananda is the oldest person to be conferred the Padma Shri award. Hailing from a poor family, his parents had to beg to keep the family fed.
He lost his entire family at the age of six and went to the ashram of Guru Omkarananda Goswami in West Bengal, who raised him and taught him everything about yoga. He paid the kindness forward by dedicating his life to teaching yoga and feeding the poor.
Over the past 50 years, he has fed more than 600 beggars afflicted by leprosy. He also arranges clothes and basic essentials for the needy. He has served the underprivileged in different parts of the country. He attributes his long life to eating only boiled food without oil or spices, rice and boiled daal (lentil stew) with a couple of green chillies.
Harekala Hajabba is a 65-year-old Indian social activist who earns a living selling oranges. Despite his meagre income, he saved money and built a school in his village.
Growing up in a family that could not afford to educate him, he dropped out of school very early to work and help support the family. He says he realised the importance of education when a foreign tourist spoke to him in English asking the price of an orange and he could not replay. From that day he saved money and was able to build a school in able to start a small school in Newpadapu.
The school is now called Hajabba School and is being supported by the government and private donors. He is called the 'Akshara Santa' (letter-saint) for his contribution. But Hajabba's dream has not ended and he hopes to build a pre-university college in his village.
Edited by Teja Lele