Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Subhash Chandra Bose, Dhyan Chand – the names of potential Bharat Ratna recipients for 2014 have sparked a guessing game in the media. The speculation began after the Home Ministry reportedly placed an order for five Bharat Ratna medallions last week. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to announce the names of the winners on Independence Day.

As the highest honour a civilian can be granted in India, the Bharat Ratna is awarded sporadically, once every few years, after the prime minister recommends nominees to the president. There have been 43 recipients of the honour since the award was introduced in 1954, of which the most recent were cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and chemist CNR Rao in 2013.

India's four main civilian awards in India – the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri – come with no monetary benefits. They cannot be used as titles that are prefixed or suffixed to the recipient’s name: a Supreme Court judgement of 1995 specified that these awards are not titles.

But the peepal leaf-shaped Bharat Ratna medallion, made of gold, platinum and bronze, is not only the only thing that recipients get. The honour comes with a handful of privileges that awardees can enjoy all their lives.

Protocol rank: Bharat Ratna recipients rank seventh in the Indian order of precedence, which is the government of India’s official protocol list. This puts winners on the same level as cabinet ministers or chief ministers.

Travel and passport: Winners can avail of free first-class flight tickets on Air India for both domestic and international flights. They get the special, maroon-covered diplomatic passports indicating that they are dignitaries representing India. It also gives them access to separate immigration counters and lounges at airports.

VVIP treatment: Both within India and outside, Bharat Ratna winners are considered as VVIP state guests and are accorded preferential treatment by state governments at home and Indian embassies abroad. This would mean having their accommodation looked after by these agencies.

The three Padma awards, meanwhile, are handed out in much larger numbers of people. Up to 120 Padmas can be announced every year, and from 1954 to 2014, more than 2,500 Padma Shris were given out. Unsurprisingly, Padma recipients do not enjoy any of the perks that Bharat Ratnas do.