I think it is best to abolish the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan -- they dilute the value of the Padma Shri, says RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal in an interview to Indulekha Aravind.
Subhash Chandra Agrawal is a long-time Right To Information activist, having filed over 6,000 RTI applications, including several about the Padma awards. Last year, he had questioned the ministry of home affairs about the Padma Shri conferred on actor Saif Ali Khan when he had several criminal cases pending against him.
Excerpts from the interview
What is your opinion about Saina Nehwal resorting to social media at not being nominated for the Padma Bhushan?
I don't approve of the route she took. I think it was undignified. Her self-lobbying may automatically disqualify her even in later years. She has created an unnecessary controversy around a national honour. She could have registered her displeasure by writing in confidence to the Union sports ministry and she could have filed an RTI petition later if the ministry had failed to respond.
In fact, I think it is best to abolish the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan -- they dilute the value of the Padma Shri. But if the Padma awards are to be retained in the three grades, there should be a rule that a person may be honoured only once in a lifetime with any of the three Padma awards. If someone thinks he/she deserves a higher variant, then he/she should refuse to be honoured with the lower variant and wait for a higher honour.
What do you think will be the outcome, now that the sports ministry has sent her file?
The Union sports ministry sending her file now is just an eyewash. The last date for sending nominations, which is over, is as binding on the sports ministry as it is for me and for you. The only exemptions are nominations by the President, the prime minister and the awards committee. The ministry of home affairs, to which the sports ministry sent the file, doesn't have the power to override the last date. Also, it is misleading to suggest that only the sports ministry could have forwarded Nehwal's file. Anybody could have, including the Badminton Association. And all recommending bodies or persons are on a par -- it's not that her nomination would have been viewed differently if the Badminton Association of India had forwarded it.
You have filed several RTIs on the Padma awards -- are there strict guidelines in the process and are they being followed?
There are statutory guidelines but they are all being bypassed. They are followed as a mere formality. Because of the irregularities in the way they were decided, a public interest litigation was initiated in the Supreme Court. The awards were suspended for some years, following which the apex court formulated certain guidelines, according to which, an awards committee had to be formed with five members of the government and five eminent personalities from different fields of public life. Their endorsement was compulsory. There are 1,500-2,000 files placed before the committee but they have to pick 100 names within three hours, that too of honours in three different categories. This is practically possible only if a previously prepared list is placed before the committee to be endorsed like a rubber stamp.
Considering the controversies that seem to dog the awards, have they lost their value?
These awards never had any value right from the beginning. This is why the Supreme Court had to intervene and suspend them for a while. Even after that, there are controversies every year and the manner in which they are being decided casts a shadow on the awards.
Would more transparency restore the reputation of the awards?
Earlier, they used to reveal who nominated whom, but suddenly they stopped doing so on the ground that this constituted personal information. Last year, I had asked which member had recommended Saif Ali Khan, and I was only told that the committee had recommended it, and that no minutes of the (awards committee) meeting were maintained. But the panel needs to maintain minutes of the meeting -- what transparency is there without that?
What prompted you to file RTIs about the Padma awards?
I have filed 6,000 RTI petitions on different aspects of public life, including the 2G scam and the Commonwealth Games. I filed an RTI petition wherever I felt there were irregularities. So, even with Padma award RTI applications, I was just doing my duty. But I've stopped now because it's tiring to attend all the hearings -- it was affecting my health. I'm not filing any more petitions but it's not because of the new government. I had given an interview in February, much before the new government was voted to power, stating that I would not be filing any more RTIs.
Image: Saina Nehwal Photographs: Michael Regan/Getty Images