Editorial 1 / Musings on kutch
Editorial 2 / Albion’s lesson
Afraid to be free
Fifth Column / To Set right a legal wrong
The politics of being poor and unwell
Letters to the editor

The prime minister’s statements on the earthquake must strike its survivors as quite numbingly platitudinous and exasperating — that is, if they have bothered to pay attention. He has quite plainly admitted that the nation is not equipped to tackle such an “extraordinary disaster”. Extraordinary disasters happen regularly in India. In Gujarat, the earthquake has been preceded by a supercyclone and severe droughts. The Latur earthquake in Maharashtra is not that far behind and even more recent is the cyclone in Orissa. Almost a decade of many calamities ought to have found the prime minister being able to vouch for and demonstrate to his nation a far greater degree of readiness with the management of such crises. His survey of the devastation in Gujarat has only managed to come up with what must surely be the most infuriatingly gnomic words of caution — that the number of casualties “should not be overestimated or underestimated”.

A pervasive feeling of being abandoned by the government is being voiced repeatedly in Gujarat. Promptness — the most crucial requirement in earthquake rescue and relief — is precisely what has been lacking in the state’s response to this calamity. It has taken what exists of the Centre’s crisis management group three days to draw up a list of requirements to be presented to those eager to help, within and without the country. Unseemly bickerings between neighbours have also been heard. The British and Swiss rescue teams, and the private organizations and individuals who have pitched in, have repeatedly felt the absence of crucial equipment — cranes, excavators, bulldozers. Inevitably, the more affluent and influential urban centres, like Bhuj and Ahmedabad, are being favoured with most of the government’s attention. Many of the poorer rural areas are yet to see the face of the army and the police. The state and Central administrations — so candidly ineffectual during an emergency and hindered, at normal times, with their own unwieldiness — have also repeatedly shown their lack of organization in handling the huge amounts of relief materials and money that start to flow in. This is likely to happen again if drastic and unprecedented steps are not taken at both the state and Central levels.

What the prime minister has admitted to is the lack of a national disaster management plan, and of a networked and well-rehearsed system (involving mostly the state governments), that would implement such a plan without putting undue pressure on the armed forces. He has also shown a rather limited understanding of what it means to lead a nation towards technological progressiveness. The hype around the India of the “new millennium” should perhaps be brought down to certain basics. The availability of essential disaster management equipment, the discipline of handling emergencies with alacrity, the organization of difficult relief operations without sliding into corruption are also important indices of a nation’s progress. They may sound far less glamorous than “intelligent” buildings, e-governance and other such wonders of information technology. But to perish without help — as the state deliberates and admits unreadiness — must feel terrifyingly distant from any notion of modernity.


The brothers Hinduja must be wondering if the fault really lies in the stars. No sooner had they come to India to co-operate with the central bureau of investigation in the Bofors case that one of them has become implicated in a cause célèbre in Great Britain. The British secretary for Northern Ireland, Mr Peter Mandelson, resigned from the British cabinet. The resignation follows the revelation that Mr Mandelson had recommended that Mr Srichand Hinduja be given a British passport. After the resignation, it would be a bit too innocent to assume that everything was above board with Mr Mandelson’s support to Mr Hinduja’s passport application. Passport applications accompanied by letters of recommendation from ministers are dime a dozen in India — and many of the applications are of very doubtful provenance — but no minister has ever resigned in India on this score. Given the level of morality in Indian public life, even to make such a suggestion would be considered lunatic. But politicians in Britain follow — and have followed throughout the 20th century — different norms. Hugh Dalton in the Forties resigned from the post of chancellor of the exchequer following an inconsequential budget leak. The Christine Keeler scandal in the early Sixties also led to the resignation of John Profumo, the then secretary of war. Mr Mandelson’s departure is thus not without precedent and is an indicator that the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest one are governed by different codes of values.

That Mr Mandelson had to resign because he chose to help Mr Hinduja is perhaps not without significance. It seems to have become a trend for south Asians to be somehow implicated in things that are not totally proper. In the betting and matchfixing scandal that shook the world of cricket most of the bookies and punters were either from south Asia or were of south Asian origin. Now a British minister has quit under a shadow for recommending an Indian businessman’s passport application. Will it be unfair to conclude that Indians have a propensity to cut corners and to bypass laws and conventions? In India, such things tend to be overlooked and are not considered transgressions at all. India still has a few things to learn from Great Britain.


A spectre is haunting Indian officialdom, the spectre of the rupee gaining in strength against the dollar in the international market, thereby raising India’s status in the comity of nations.

Pray, what is the ruckus about? Before we delve into its mystery, it may be useful to recount some basic facts. In 1999-2000, our oil imports had amounted to $ 10.5 billion. During the early weeks of the current fiscal year, the international price of petroleum crude had shot up to $ 35 per barrel; although there has been an abatement later. Even so, the going price is still $ 30 per barrel. In consequence, in the period April to November this year, oil imports have shot up to $ 11.35 billion as against $ 6.2 billion in the corresponding period of the previous year.

There is a fair possibility that, for the fiscal year 2000-2001 in entirety, the value of aggregate oil imports might reach close to $ 16 billion. This is likely to be so in the context of the proposal being mulled over by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut back the production of petroleum crude and stabilize the price at a level between $ 30 and $ 35 per barrel. As things now stand, roughly 40 per cent of the total value of our imports consists of imports of crude petroleum. Should the OPEC proposal be pushed through, this proportion might rise further.

A new situation, that has arisen of late, deserves to be taken into account against this background. Iraq, the country the United States is trying its hardest to obliterate from the face of the earth, has reportedly floated a suggestion for the consideration of the government of India. Thanks to the American dispensation, Iraqis are being starved of food, medicine and other essential commodities for the past several years. At the same time, they are prevented from earning foreign exchange by selling a part of their huge output of crude petroleum.

In the circumstances, they have made an alluring offer to our government. The ambit of this offer stretches beyond the so-called United Nations’ food-for-oil programme under which we are to receive an extra quantity of one million tonnes of crude during the current fiscal year. If only we agree to sell them a substantial quantity of our foodgrains, in the production of which we claim to be comfortably surplus, the Iraqis, the special offer suggests, would be willing to send us an unspecified, but negotiable, quantity of petroleum crude at only $ 7 per barrel.

It is a dream offer. Just consider its implications. The price on offer by Iraq would be almost one-fifth of the price at which we have, on the average, bought crude in the current year. If we lean towards Iraq for our entire import of crude next year, the saving in foreign exchange would be to the extent of $ 12 billion, or more. In case we buy half of our requirements from Iraq, the saving in foreign exchange would be at least $ 6 billion. Should we buy even one-fourth of our petroleum crude requirement from that country, even then, the saving would amount to $ 3 billion.

But in this matter we are apparently not our own masters. Since formally Iraq continues to be subject to economic sanctions imposed by the UN — read, instead of the UN, the US — any deal we seek to enter into with the government of Iraq will need the prior approval of the international body. In other words, it will need the prior approval of the US. This is where the snag arises. China cares not one whit for the so-called UN sanctions, nor does France, nor does Venezuela. These countries have negotiated trade and payments agreements with the government of Iraq, and the US has not been able to act as a spoiler. We are, however, different. Our government takes pride in the special relationship it has established with the American administration. We are in fact busy jostling against a handful of other countries for occupying the slot best described as the number one lackey of the US.

Despite the fantastic windfall which the Iraqi offer would allow us to enjoy, our government is still hesitating; it has kept the government of Iraq waiting. The reason is obvious. Unless the Americans give us the green signal, we dare not proceed to complete the Iraqi deal. A certain nervousness is nonetheless abroad in Indian official, and perhaps ministerial, minds.

Were Iraq to succeed in wrapping up the agreement with us, a dramatic improvement could take place in our balance of payments position; we should be able to save, depending upon the quantity we buy from Iraq, anything between $ 3 billion to $ 12 billion in foreign exchange. In case that happens, there will be an immediate easing of the strain we have been experiencing on the foreign exchange front; the rupee will make a spectacular recovery over the dollar; we will have to spend less rupees to buy a given quantity of American goods and the Americans will have to shell out more dollars to buy a given quantity of Indian goods.

This prospect has rendered distraught the Indian bureaucracy, and, conceivably, its masters as well. It has now set up an argument to sabotage the proposed agreement with Iraq. In its view, it would be a great calamity if we import petroleum crude from Iraq at $ 7 per barrel. That would appreciate the value of our rupee in terms of the dollar, thereby, the argument runs, severely inconveniencing our exports; India’s exports might actually deteriorate so much that there could even loom a foreign exchange crisis of a dimension as great as the one which visited us in 1991. The nervous Nellys, to stave off such a calamity, would at that point look to intervention by the central bank so that the external value of the rupee could be brought down.

Such is the absurdity of the comprador mindset. If we conclude the deal with Iraq, we might register a saving of foreign exchange to the extent of even $ 12 billion. But, insinuate our officials, this would not be of any good at all, for our exports are bound to decline because of the continuous strengthening of the rupee in the international market. These wise men do not specify though by what amount our exports could fall. Even if the saving of foreign exchange resulting from our signing the agreement with Iraq amounts to $ 12 billion, we must, according to their view, decline to append our signature to it, for our foreign exchange earnings might fall at the other end because of the slide in exports.

This is sheer tomfoolery. For the crucial issue is whether the saving in foreign exchange on account of the deal with Iraq would or would not be more than the possible gain in exports, and therefore in foreign exchange earnings, in case we did not sign the deal. Quite clearly, Indian officials do not consider the matter in this light. Their worry is that a deal of the nature Iraq has proposed would harm global American interests, and what is bad for the US is ipso facto bad for India.

The debate therefore boils down to a single issue: are the officials and their superiors ensconced in North Block under commitment to serve the cause of India or that of the boss-country, the US? The so-called free market hypothesis for international trade postulates a multiplicity of sellers and that of buyers too in order to maximize gain for each country. Here then lies the irony. By tying ourselves to American apron strings, we are not furthering, but hindering, free international trade. In the present circumstances, the mighty US is, really and truly, the arch enemy of freedom. And the local compradors suffer from a genuine fear of freedom.


After a protracted battle in the Mumbai high court, film financier and diamond merchant, Bharat Shah, has been finally able to discover the exact grounds on which he had been arrested. It may seem ironic that Shah had to spend a week without knowing his “offence”. But that is precisely what is possible under the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act, which some lawyers describe as a mini-Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.

The description is not entirely inaccurate. Five years after the dreaded TADA was allowed to lapse by the government in 1985, the Centre has been unable to re-enact an equivalent. This is perhaps because of the constraints of coalition politics. However, a number of state governments are in the process of doing so. The lead was taken by Tamil Nadu, soon after the Coimbatore blasts in 1998, with its Prevention of Terrorism Act. Maharashtra followed with the MCOCA. Madhya Pradesh has also passed the Special Areas Protection Act, while Karnataka has decided to enact a similar legislation.

One of the features common to all the acts is their significant departure from the accepted practices of the criminal procedure code and the Indian penal code with respect to the procedure for obtaining bail before the case comes up for trial. They extend the period of detention from the maximum of 15 days at a time to 30 days and also allow for detention for a total of six months as against two months under the ordinary law. Further, they deny a copy of the first information report to the accused.

Secret offence

This feature was challenged by Shah’s lawyers, who also questioned the police decision to prevent them from meeting their client while he was in custody. Justice S.S. Parkar of the Mumbai high court has specifically ruled that, notwithstanding anything contained in MCOCA, “unless the accused is given some particulars of the grounds of his arrest, he won’t be able to effectively apply for bail in exercise of his fundamental rights”. Also, “the rights of communicating the grounds of arrest as enshrined in Article 22 (1) cannot be overridden by any legislation.”

In effect the high court has ruled that section 167 of the CrPC must gain precedence over section 19 of the MCOCA. Parkar’s judgment is of significance as Shah will be the first detainee under MCOCA in over 18 months of its existence to enjoy the privilege of seeing his chargesheet. Until now, the undemocratic provisions regarding bail in the MCOCA and related acts had been justified on the grounds that the police found it impossible to secure convictions against terrorists and members of organized crime syndicates under ordinary laws. In reality, there has been no significant improvement in police records regarding convictions.

Scrap the act

In the 10 years of its existence, 52,998 were arrested under TADA. Nearly one-fourth of them were discharged by the courts for lack of evidence even before the trial itself and a mere one per cent, or 448 people, were actually convicted. The high percentage of those discharged is significant because the average period of detention of the TADA detainees before trial in Maharashtra is 25 months.

In two celebrated cases tried under the act — the murder of A.K. Vaidya for which two were awarded death sentences, and the Rajiv Gandhi assassination where three were given death sentences — the guilty were absolved of offences under TADA. They were convicted under the normal criminal laws. It took the detention of a celebrity like Sanjay Dutt to bring many of these aspects to light. Critics of the act argued that the figures indicated TADA was nothing more than a convenient form of preventive detention, under which the police could keep a suspect in custody for a longer period than was possible under other laws. It is nobody’s case that the police should not act against organized crime. But there is every reason to believe that in doing so there is abuse of a number of well-established democratic norms and procedures.

The significance of the Mumbai high court judgment is perhaps being lost amidst the sensationalism surrounding the case. Perhaps, the Bharat Shah case will be to MCOCA what the Dutt case had been to TADA — a reason for the scrapping of the act.


Two meetings, held in the first week of December last year, were the culmination of a year-long international campaign on globalization and health. The focus was the 1978 World Health Organization’s Alma-Ata declaration which had promised “Health for all by the year 2000”. More than 1,500 people from all over India came to Calcutta’s Salt Lake Stadium for the national health assembly.

Two hundred Indian delegates then travelled to Dhaka for the people’s health assembly, where, over five days, participants from 93 countries spoke on the effects of international trade policies on their lives. Both meetings concluded with the adoption of health charters describing the role of globalization on people’s lives, and outlining a package of demands towards the realization of a long-forgotten commitment: people’s right to health through primary healthcare.

The Alma-Ata declaration, acknowledged as a watershed development in the history of public health, stated that health was a fundamental right the realization of which depended on economic development. It asserted governments’ fundamental responsibility to provide their people health. Primary healthcare was based on community participation, people’s needs, scientific principles, affordability and universal accessibility.

Despite the declaration’s unanimous acceptance by the international community, few countries tried to live up to it. A speaker at the NHA commented that the state’s lip service to primary healthcare was soon discarded in favour of selective packages of interventions: even the immunization programme has suffered from an aggressive polio eradication campaign.

The NHA and the PHA, and the campaigns leading up to them, join a growing body of protest against globalization and its consequences. The issues raised at these meetings have been raised in many other contexts, by trade unions, political parties, organizations of farmers, environmentalists, and so on.

As a speaker noted, the PHA at Dhaka was seen by the Indian programme as an opportunity to foreground longstanding concerns regarding social and economic changes and their consequences.

When developing countries, forced into a crisis by the manipulations of the international trading system, sought international loans, they were made to implement “structural adjustment programmes” which would open up their markets to the international economy, privatize public sector enterprises, cut government subsidies and take other steps which made their economies even more vulnerable to the vagaries of the international market. The resulting price rises, unemployment and poverty sharpened economic inequalities as well as inequalities in people’s health status.

Through a combination of plenary sessions, concurrent workshops and testimonies, the meetings presented a rich portrait of the consequences of current policies, as well as the struggling efforts of individuals, organizations and countries. There were people like N.H. Antia, who had demonstrated that trained health-workers could provide most of a community’s health services. There was Zafarullah Chowdhury, who had, years ago, mobilized opposition within Bangladesh to the multinational pharmaceutical industry.

There was the story of the relatively poor state of Kerala, whose commitment to the social sector has resulted in health indicators comparable to those of developed countries. The subjects of workshops ranged from the WTO to drug use, from population control programmes to community health.

Of the 93 participating countries in the PHA, the preparatory process was by many accounts most successful in India. Here the campaign, led by the All India People’s Science Network, soon snowballed and the national coordination committee was eventually composed of 20 national organizations or networks.

Approximately 1,000 local organizations participated in the preparatory campaign in India, conducting district-level inquiries into the state of people’s health and the availability and quality of health services. The process presented much information on the various ways in which the SAP has affected people’s health.

The findings were publicized through kala jatras, posters and public meetings at the block, district and village levels. State coordinating organizations initiated dialogues with local health authorities, meetings with the medical profession towards its internal reform, campaigns against malpractices and programmes to monitor the work of government health services.

There is evidence that an already undernourished population is further deprived as a result of rising food prices, unemployment and withdrawal of subsidies. As state support for health services continues to decrease, people are increasingly forced to resort to private services of variable quality, and recent studies suggest that healthcare is the second most important cause of indebtedness. The infant mortality rate is considered a sensitive indicator of a society’s health. In the 1998-99 national family health survey II, nine states actually registered a rise in infant mortality from the 1992-93 survey.

With the growing commercialization of health services, medical practice is guided by personal profit rather than social need, sharpening existing inequalities. So, an already skewed sex ratio is worsened with the promotion of sex-selective abortion.

The next challenge is to sustain the PHA process. There are plans to set up a forum for the demand for healthcare as a fundamental right, to further pursue the dialogue built up with authorities, to create a lobby for policy change. Possible proposals could be a national commission on health, district level monitoring of public health services and social legislation to regulate the private sector.

Over the past year, groups with radically differing philosophies came together to oppose global and national policies which work against people’s interests. The movement may face a number of challenges in the future. Will the national coordination committee be able to sustain a long-term programme, given individual groups’ routine commitments? Will participating organizations meet the challenge of a democratic process while remaining true to their own perspectives? Or will the differences overwhelm this newly formed force? The different backgrounds, perspectives and priorities of the groups can provoke important debates which will take the movement further. But there is a danger of the movement petering out, or of a part of it being coopted by the very forces it seeks to oppose.

When the World Bank representative, Richard Skolnick, came to argue the bank’s case as an agent of development, he was met by a hostile audience, and a debate began on whether his presence was appropriate given the campaign’s stated opposition to the bank. But one heard several voices privately supporting the notion that the bank could become a “partner” in the PHA.

One of the most articulate and hard-hitting comments at the PHA was made by James Orbinsky, the former president of Doctors Without Borders, which has apparently started a shift away from its focus on medical relief, to opposing the broader contexts in which crises occur. Orbinsky called for the assembly to be clear about what the problem was — an important statement given the sometimes conflicting statements made at the meeting.

He asked for reflection on whose interests are represented by national governments, international agencies and commercial enterprises. He noted that non-governmental organizations have often played a complicit role in this state of affairs, “co-managers of misery with the state”, content to provide a salve instead of demanding real political change.

Finally, he asked that the movement work towards a confronta- tion with the real sources of power, one that did not result in a “premature” co-opting of the movement, but one which resulted in genuine social change.

“Health is politics,” asserted Hafdan Mahler, director-general of the WHO at the time the Alma-Ata declaration was signed. The work towards the NHA and the PHA is an accomplishment, an opportunity and a challenge for the future.



Too few to make a party

Sir — Isn’t it time the West Bengal Congress seriously considered shutting shop (“Ghani takes mahajot plunge”, Jan 29)? With Mamata Banerjee taking the bulk of its supporters and now A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury parting ways, the state unit of the party might soon find it easy to count the number of its followers on its fingers. But that is not the only reason for Pranab Mukherjee to start packing his bags. While trying to convince Chowdhury not to jump boats, Mukherjee made it amply clear that he was here on her majesty’s service, in fact to cater to the party’s “political compulsions at the national level”, as he put it. For West Bengal, fighting its mammoth political battle, this is a statement that is completely out of sync. Mukherjee’s loyalties lie with the Congress president, not so much with the party and much less with the state. A leader so out of rhythm with the major issues of the state elections cannot command the commitment of his party members nor can he convince the electorate of his own commitment.
Yours faithfully,
J. Sen, Calcutta

Quite contrary

Sir — There have been numerous news articles recently about Subhas Chakraborty’s statements expressing dissatisfaction with the ruling government’s performance over the last 24 years. These vitriolic statements amount to nothing more than political gimmickry.

They are largely the result of a conspiracy between Chakraborty and some other disgruntled members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Now that the polls are imminent and the utter failure of the CPI(M) is amply evident — especially after the retirement of the former chief minister, Jyoti Basu — the likes of Chakraborty have no other option but to take resort in populist statements and antics.

But this will not work any more. Whether or not Chakraborty remains with the CPI(M), the party’s internal failings have been exposed. There is no room for independent decisions; the politburo pulls the strings and ministers dance like puppets. As a matter of fact, the CPI(M) would have got rid of Chakraborty had the assembly elections not been round the corner.

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, Calcutta

Sir — Subhas Chakraborty’s recent remarks and his policy of keeping the party on tenterhooks about his contesting elections is truly embarrassing (“Subhas vows not to contest polls”, Jan 23). If a minister as old as Chakraborty and in as responsible a position starts behaving like this, it means the end of all sane politics in this country.

Indirectly demanding a position in the state committee and then sulking when offered a position in the district committee does not indicate any grace in Chakraborty’s personality. In fact, if he has any self-respect, he should quietly settle down and prepare for the elections. This is where his métier lies and if he continues to try to grab headlines, he should also be prepared to take the flak from the media and from the people.

Yours faithfully,
Ritobrata Bhaumik, Kharagpur

Sir — “To contest or not to contest” seems to be the new motto of Subhas Chakraborty’s political ambitions (“Basu drive to pacify Subhas”, Jan 25).

Doesn’t he realize that his latest manoeuverings cannot get him what he really wants? If he has to rise to any eminence in West Bengal politics he has to come out of the shadows of the leaders of the CPI(M). He should float his own party if he thinks it is too much of a volte face to join the Congress.

Yours faithfully,
Chumki Banerjee, via emai

Battered women

Sir — In “Lessons in zero tolerance” (Jan 7), Shuma Raha has made some relevant observations. But what should be looked into is how many victims would truly benefit from the prevention of domestic violence against women bill. While it does bring hope for many women, a matter of greater urgency are the education and eventual financial self-sufficiency of women. If this does not happen how are women going to pay the legal expenses of lengthy judicial proceedings? Besides, even if they attain this self-sufficiency, there is no guarantee that the offenders will not turn out to be repeat offenders. Those who can go to the extent of brutalizing women once can just as well do it again. Most women in India will be crushed if they are sent back to the homes of their parents or if they are divorced or abandoned. The law cannot protect these women and take the responsibility of feeding, sheltering and clothing them for life.

Over the years, laws in India have not been able to decrease defamatory and fatal violence against women. Then what is the purpose of this exercise? There is perhaps nothing more unfortunate for a woman than being in a situation in which seeking justice results in abandonment and a life of solitary misery in an unjust and unkind society.

Yours faithfully,
Joita Roy, via email

Sir — The review of the report by A.K. Shiva Kumar and Kalyani Menon-Sen, “Born in Chains” (Jan 21), is an incisive analysis. The issue of crimes against women is hardly anything new, and the only solution seems to be compulsory universal education. Educated women tend to have the self-confidence and the courage to break free and move court.

Yours truly,
S. Ramakrishnan, via email

Borderline case

Sir — The article by Ashok Mitra, “The lineage of control” (Jan 17) treats the boundary of the Indian nation as a national commodity which can be traded to increase the gross domestic product of the country.

That this idea has come from a wellknown Indian communist is hardly surprising. Mitra would do well to take a look at his comrades in Vietnam, Cuba and China, who are attempting to fight poverty. They never compromise their loyalties to the state in doing so.

Going by Mitra’s logic, communists in government should never be provided a security cover since it would amount to wasting public money, which otherwise could have been utilized for developmental purposes. Moreover, Mitra’s idea that the communists and the Congress can share power at the Centre is quite fantastic given the shrinking base that the left has in modern India.

By criticizing the Kashmir policy of the Indian government, Mitra argues Pakistan’s case for Kashmir and, perhaps unwittingly, encourages separatism.

Yours faithfully,
Sanjay Prasad, Calcutta

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s views on Kashmir are disheartening. His article also abounds in inconsistencies. In the same breath, he criticizes the government of India for shying away from it commitment to holding a plebiscite in Kashmir and for not foisting “an agreement” on Pakistan.

Mitra puts many facts about Jawaharlal Nehru and others in the dark. Pakistan had been guilty of aggression and Lord Mountbatten had himself told Mohammad Ali Jinnah, “Accession had indeed been brought about by violence, but violence came from the tribes, for whom Pakistan, and not India, was responsible.”

The queer logic of excusing the thief who breaks into the house as innocent and the householder who fails to stop the theft as guilty fails to convince. The article almost resembled a handbill touting the forging of a third front.

Yours faithfully,
R. Chakrabarti, Howrah

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