Saalumarada Thimmakka, the great environmentalist of Karnataka.
  • Ever since the NDA government came to power in 2014, plenty of unsung heroes have received the Padma honour. Here, we highlight five inspired selections.

One of the highlights ever since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power is the democratisation of the Padma awards.

The awards for civilians with illustrious achievements have now truly become ‘people’s Padma awards’, with citizens working away from the limelight being recognised and awarded.

These awards have brought to the forefront many achievements by karmayogis of different ages from various parts of the country whose stories would have otherwise not received such a large platform.


The stories of these unsung heroes that have made their way to us through the Padma awards are inspirational. We shine the spotlight on a few:

1) Dr Smita Kolhe and Dr Ravindra Kolhe have been working in the Naxal-infested Melghat district of Maharashtra for nearly 30 years now. They work with the Korku tribal community, running a clinic in Bairagad providing primary health care in the area.

They charge a negligible fee of Rs 2 for their services after having left their prospering medical careers in the city behind to follow their heart.


The Kolhe couple have helped in improving the public distribution system (PDS) delivery in the area, particularly during the drought and rains and that, in turn, has contributed to making Melghat a suicide-free zone for farmers.

They have also helped in developing 12 primary health centres (PHCs) in the area and have developed a fungus-resistant variety of seeds. For their selfless service, Dr Smita and Dr Ravindra Kolhe have been awarded the Padma Shri.

2) A 96-year-old farmer from Gujarat was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution to organic agriculture. Vallabhbhai Vasrambhai Marvaniya developed the ‘Madhuvan Gajar’ and introduced carrots to the people of Gujarat in 1943.


At that time, carrots were only used to feed cattle, but young Vallabhbhai went against the advice of his father and started persuading people to taste carrots. He went on to sell small quantities of the carrot produce in the local market initially and has tasted success ever since.

He has been practising organic farming for 65 years and has incorporated drip irrigation and mulching methods to his cropping practises. The carrots introduced by him have a higher yield of about 40-50 tonnes per hectare.

Marvaniya has also been awarded the National Grassroots Innovation Award in 2017.


3) Sixty-nine-year-old Kamala Pujhari is a tribal agriculture activist belonging to Patraput village in Koraput district of Odisha. Pujhari has been awarded the Padma Shri for preserving hundreds of endangered seeds and promoting organic farming in the state. She has preserved endangered seeds like paddy, turmeric, black cumin, tili, and so on. Pujhari has played a huge role in convincing villagers to adopt organic farming by stopping the use of chemical fertilisers.

She was trained at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Jeypore and had also attended a workshop on organic farming conducted in Johannesburg. The state government had earlier recognised her contribution, and she was awarded the best woman farmer in 2004. Before that, she was awarded the Equator Initiative Award in South Africa.

Pujhari is also the first tribal woman member of the Planning Board, Odisha. Her work is so celebrated in the agricultural circles in Odisha that a hostel building in the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology has been named after her.


4) Saalumarada Thimmakka is 106 years old and is known as ‘Vriksha Mata’. This environmentalist from Karnataka has spent 66 years of her life planting thousands of trees and protecting them like she would her children.

Thimmakka had faced societal ridicule for not being able to bear children, but she overcame that and found her calling in environmental conservation. She came to be known for planting more than 350 Banyan trees along a 4 km-long highway stretch between Hulikal and Kudur. That is how she got the name ‘Salumarada’, which means ‘a row of trees’ in Kannada.

Thimmakka has been instrumental in promoting afforestation, and she regularly travels to attend environmental protection programmes conducted across the country.


5) In 1999, when Madurai Chinna Pillai from the Pulissery village of Madurai received the first-ever Stree Shakti Puraskar from former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the letter bent down to touch her feet. The 66-year-old farmer continues to be a force of nature and has been awarded the Padma Shri this year.

When the self-help group (SHG) ecosystem had not taken root in India, Chinna Pillai was at the forefront of spreading community-based microfinance for poverty reduction. She single-handedly transformed the lives of thousands of rural women with the Kalanjiam movement. She founded several Kalajiams and also established the first-ever federation of rural women savings and credit group. The Kalanjiam community banking programme runs in the states of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka now.

Chinna Pillai has been instrumental in freeing women from the stranglehold of money lenders and in giving them confidence to be financially aware, organised, and secure.


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