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'Sword of Honour' - Witness to British pomp and circumstance
I first visited London over a long weekend in 1960. As we walked along the river Thames, I stood for a while looking up at the Big Ben, whose chimes were heard all round the world, over BBC.

Adjacent to it was the British Parliament, known as the 'Mother of all Parliaments'! All the pages of England's history flashed in my mind. In school we had read about Guy Fawkes and his failed Gunpowder plot, to blow up the edifice in 17th century.

Little did I know that three decades later, I myself along with my colleague would be in the hallowed chambers of the House of Lords, at a party to celebrate our 'Sword of Honour'.

Sponsored by the British Royalty, the 'Sword of Honour' a real sword, is bestowed every year to the safest companies in the world. A member of the royal family is always present, due to sword's sponsorship by the royalty.

Here 'safety' relates to Occupational Safety, Health and Environment, not only safety of the workers on the shop floor, but all employees including drivers and their safe driving, visitors to the plant and also proper treatment of effluents, etc., so as not to endanger the neighbourhood.

Auditors of the British Safety Council go round the world, checking not the official statistics of accidents, etc. But, they physically check how much of the safety, health and environment concepts have trickled down to every level of workers, foremen and managers.

In 1990, our company won and my colleague and I left for London for a very elaborate traditional occasion. Six months in advance we had received detailed instructions for the protocol. A representative of the royal family is always present in whose presence the function is held.

Formal dark suits were a must. When the sword is handed over, how to hold it so not to hurt anyone! A velvet lined wooden case is provided for keeping the sword. This sharp edged sword is hand crafted by the House of Wilkinson, who are official sword makers to the Queen. With a gold plated handle, it has the royal crest painted on it and the entire length of the silver plated sword is engraved with floral patterns.

We were asked to keep a silver farthing in our coat pocket (very curious, I thought!). I being the only vegetarian among the invitees, had been informed, that I would be catered to accordingly. The award ceremony was held in a historical building close to the parliament. It took us back to the Elizabethan era.

All the attendants, the ushers, town criers with their big bells could have been straight out of Shakespeare's England. We had to walk up the old steps, laid out with red carpets. A lady in billowing white skirt took one by the arm and escorted up the stairs and up to my table. As we entered the hall, the town crier rang his bell and announced from a scroll, 'Hark ye, hark ye Ladies and Gentlemen, now enters Mr....., Director, so and so......'.

Only 30 guests were invited and photography was not allowed. However, the official photographer and BBC TV were present. After all were seated, the proceedings started with short but very crisp and witty speeches. Finally, the town crier in his regalia rang his bell and Lord Hunt came over to present the swords.

I walked up to the Lord, who had his long white gloves on both his hands. I took out the silver farthing from my coat pocket and gave it to the Lord. An attendant brought the wooden box and opened it. Hunt took out the sword and carefully handed it to me. He advised me to hold the sword with the tip to the ground. He whispered in my ears that he was a close friend of Nehru. Then with a wink, he uttered, 'You must be thinking, that we British are be crazy to ask you for a small silver farthing! We Englishmen never accept anything for free. Not even an honour!'

In the end Queen's cousin, Baroness Phillip of Fulham made very good humoured remarks, about how British industry had slipped and how countries like India were overtaking England. Then she invited us to a room in House of Lords, where muffins and cakes were served from the parliament's bakery.

She freely moved among the invitees, where we had direct experience of listening to that clipped accent of the British privileged class. While leaving, Baroness of Fulham gave each one of us a box of goodies from their bakery. Each one them bore the insignia of the House of Lords. 'This is for your family, back home', was her gracious gesture.

I had never imagined that one day I would be part of that British pomp and circumstance, transporting us into the Elizabethan era. All thanks to the good work done by our teammates in the field of Occupational Health, Safety and Environment.

Subsequently, leading Indian companies Larsen & Toubro, Asian Paints and others have also won this prestigious award. A testimony of how Indian industry has fast moved up to international benchmarks of excellence!

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