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No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation

Three people I know and who do not know each other told me last week that they are thinking of leaving India and making a life abroad. They were all deeply disturbed by the Dadri lynching incident and the growing climate of intolerance and violence around us. They all expressed concerns about bringing up their children in a nation where hatred is normal, even a virtue. I feel their pain. I have also not stopped worrying about the future for weeks, though I’m not contemplating leaving the country. Not yet.

Many others I have spoken to in my circle of acquaintances (and let me clarify here that I’m referring mostly to educated, urban Indians in well-paid jobs) dismissed these incidents as collateral damage in electoral politics. Historians like DN Jha (link) and Aparna Vaidik (link) have shown that this is nothing new; cow protection has been an important aspect of pastoral lives but beef eating and cow slaughter have long been sensitive issues, used cleverly by politicians and monarchs to appease certain communities and demonize others. The people who were doing the shrugging seemed to regard themselves as distanced from these ground level politics, while those who felt disturbed imagined that this particular brand of politics, previously at a distance, was now poised to invade their relatively peaceful and protected lives.

Dealing with a climate of fear

Whatever situation you find yourself in, there is a palpable sense of fear that is forcing many of us to take sides. The climate of fear is urging many educated Hindus who have previously regarded their religion as a matter of private belief, separate from their public lives, to acknowledge that their sense of security stems from their ‘Hinduness’. Aware that their actions and words are being judged for how Hindu they are, this is a group that is now deliberate in what they say or do. They are sandwiched between what they are and what they want to project of themselves. They are struggling with the morality they practice and the moral code that is slowly being imposed on us.

Educated non-Hindus too, make a choice. The blending of many religions into the broader umbrella of Hindutva is an obvious strategy of the right wing forces and I truly wonder how cognizant practitioners of these faiths are of this inexorable sucking in of non-controversial faiths into the big umbrella of Hindu belief. For educated Muslims, keeping fear at bay must be a very very deliberate and difficult process. Those who are promoting this atmosphere of hatred must also take responsibility for the growing radicalization of educated Muslim youth in India, and the increased threat of terrorism that our country faces as a result.

The educated Indian is an unfair target

Then there are the die-hard liberals (and I refuse to stigmatize that word), who genuinely believe in the diversity and pluralism of India, who support the idea of choice and who are suspicious of a majoritarian view. I would call them idealists. These are the people for whom hope is an important word at this time. For they seem to be the true targets of this new brand of aggressive Hinduism we see around us. Devdutt Patnaik acknowledges this when he calls the discourse around beef-eating a “symbolic attack on the ‘educated Indian’ who did not stand up for Hinduism in the international arena” (link).

To me, this is a baffling situation. How does PM Modi expect industrialization (Make in India), technological growth (Digital India) or urban investments (Smart Cities Mission) that will catalyze India’s economic growth to happen without the contribution of the educated Indian? Is he supporting the atmosphere of fear expecting that educated Indians have no choice but to accept the hegemony of a dominant Hinduism and carry on with the productive lives they lead? Does he not realize that an atmosphere of fear, violence and suspicion works counter to one of productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship?

No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation

For in becoming educated and urban (by default it would seem), it is true that we (and I speak collectively here, as a nation and a community) move a teeny weeny bit out of the stronghold of family, religion, clan and caste. In becoming educated and living in a place of multiple and varied influences (ergo, the city), we do begin to acknowledge and even appreciate the tastes, the expressions of those unlike us. We develop some tolerance, we learn to prioritize actions that take us forward over those and re-negotiate the older codes of religion, caste or clan so they can serve us better. It is in this process of self-discovery and prioritization, in the journey between what we were and what we want to be, that we take risks and contribute the most to the world around us.

At this time, India’s economic objectives seem to be hinged around the expectation the above journey will be one of hope and success. The atmosphere of fear I wrote about above, is a bid to re-focus the core of our identities away from our education and expanding minds inward to a place of fear, bigotry and parochialism. The atmosphere of fear is putting in jeopardy everything that our nation has worked very hard for, including the eradication of poverty and child malnutrition and the provision of decent living standards for all Indians. As Kalpana Sharma points out (link), it’s not just religious minorities but women too, who are becoming targets of a deeply vicious misogynistic moral code. Do we want our young people to become the skilled workforce (ref: Skill India Initiative) that will help India leverage its demographic dividend, or would we rather they lynch a beef eater or strip a woman who dared defy convention? What kind of economic growth will a nation of fighting, insular people achieve?

This is an appeal to all educated Indians. Let us not be silent and accept the blame for something we are not ashamed of. Why should we be ashamed of focusing our energies on studying, learning skills and deploying them for the betterment of ourselves and our country? Certainly not! We need to recognize the terrible impacts this atmosphere of fear and hatred will have on ourselves, our children and our nation. We need to petition the government to contain this. If we do not speak out and take action, we will have no choice but to toe the line, or leave the country.

Growing cities: Are there patterns at all?

It’s a question urbanists obsess about all the time. Is there a pattern in how cities grow? If we can find one, we would be in a much better position to plan, manage and grow our urban areas, we argue. But cities are shifty, complex creatures. My own take has always been that we can shape cities in small ways, but mostly our role as city planners, managers or designers is to manage change. I tend to be very skeptical of large, sweeping gestures and strongly feel that community-led neighbourhood level changes, incremental design is the right way to view cities.

This study by Prof Beveridge at Queens College, therefore, was very interesting to me. It compares three schools of urbanist theory in the US and finds that while the conventional patterns remained true in the first half of the 20th century and even up until the post-war era, recent decades see no real patterns coming forth. Cities are behaving in more complex, random ways.

A study of cities elsewhere, in India specifically, would be needed to understand the global significance of these findings, but to me it only confirms my belief that we urban practitioners need to drastically change the way we are looking at cities. What do you think?

My feminist journey: I have the power to change!

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I know. Even when it was not cool to be one and through many years when I didn’t know I was one! But even though I believed passionately in the concept of an equal world, and knew society to be hopelessly patriarchal; even though I could see strains on misogyny in people around me and would be irritated as hell with chocolate-faced boys in college who were innocent enough to believe that molestation did not happen in public transport- I had no idea that I was living my life as a victim of the patriarchal construct.

Don’t get me wrong. The men in my life have mostly been these wonderful people, probably more wedded to the idea of gender equality than most women I know. My father always championed the woman’s cause, advising patients to deal with gender-related problems with courage rather than ignoring the social and familial aspects of his patients’ lives, which would have been easy to do. In our marriage, Rahul has always treated our roles as a consequence of choice or circumstance than as dictated by gender. I genuinely think he would be happy to stay home and be a full time dad if I would choose to go out and earn the money needed to support the lifestyle we aspire to. These aren’t black and white issues, there are no easy choices.

But after spending some years of my life whining about having to work from home, being upset about restrictions on my mobility and stressing about bringing up my children, I came to the conclusion that only person standing between me and my aspirations is ME! I chose to believe what the world was telling me about the need for a woman to be a devoted mum to the point of squashing her own personality. I chose to see myself through the imagined perspective of my mother in law, stricturing myself for going out with a friend instead of putting my child to bed, or for going to the gym early morning and not being there when my children woke up; or feeling guilty about meeting a guy friend as a married woman even though my husband had no issues with this. In truth, I was happy in the roles I played as wife, mother, daughter in law, bhabhi, and I still am. But I did make an effort to fit into what I thought was the stereotype of all these roles in middle class Indian society. I was not saying- this is me, I am a good person, talented and sincere, caring and intelligent and you all should just accept me for who I am. Instead I was thinking- this is me, but that is what they want to see me as, so I ended up being someone in between, for many years.

When I began writing my blog daily in the beginning on 2012, I was aware of the need for change but was still this other person. By writing everyday, I forced myself to think about me, my convictions, the way I came across to others and what consequences my actions had. A new thought pattern emerged. One that put me in the center of my own universe, after a long long time. Long discussions with Rahul, arguments about the hurtfulness of being selfish, discussions about the complexity of marriage and the role of communication in it helped me wrap my head around the idea that one could be self-centered without being selfish. Possibly, it was possible! As a woman and a mother, I had to change the warped idea that I was at the center of the universe for my children, or my husband. Maybe I was, and maybe I was not. It did not matter! All that mattered was my happiness, my sense of satisfaction in what I did, my self-confidence in who I am- by being fulfilled I would automatically enrich the lives of those around me, simple enough! When I used this construct to think through my decisions and perceptions, everything else started falling in place.

In one year, I have been able to take more decisions towards my career, been able to start practicing the arts I love, spend time with my children without over-analyzing things, been able to read more, travel more, observe more, write more- in general, I have become a far more productive and happier person.

The trick is not to be trapped in the stereotypes built around you. To analyze them objectively and identify what makes you happy. The idea is to be a fulfilled, excited, energetic person who contributes to the world around.

Today, I am a more informed feminist. I am confident about my strengths but also careful to try and not fall prey to the patriarchal construct I have imbibed through my life. I have the power to educate, the power to influence and change myself and those around me even as I practice consciously the tenets of empathy and tolerance, justice and equality.

India on the cusp of change: States must shun exclusive growth policies,opt for inclusion

With the election fever on in Gujarat and the hugely pro-Modi mood in the state, from what little I have heard from family and acquaintance living an visiting the state, an editorial that questions the Gujarat growth model certainly gets attention! Atul Sood’s piece in The Hindu today points out that the state’s growth path is exclusionary. He argues that compared to other states with similar growth rates- Maharashtra, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat has not done well in the traditional indicators for development. Employment has remained stagnant, including manufacturing employment. The manufacturing sector is also showing a slow growth of wages (less than the other three States) and increasing use of contract workers. Sood points out that “the worsening condition of workers in the manufacturing sector is accompanied by increasing profitability and growing investment in the sector.” Both rural and urban per capital monthly consumption expenditure in Gujarat has grown at lower rates these past five years than before that and is also lower than the other three States.

The author, who is one of ten independent researchers who have been published in a recent study ‘Poverty Amidst Prosperity: Essays on the Trajectory of Development in Gujarat’ cites Gujarat’s experience as a window to really understand the limitations of market-led growth without a policy vision that equally works to mitigate the negative impacts of this development model.

For those of us who work in the development sector, or are aware of the issues associated with it, this is an essential dilemma. How will the trickle-down effect happen? Or the trickle-up for that matter, for those who believe the demand will be led by Bottom of the Pyramid customers, who would need a certain amount of disposable income and a fairly stable quality of life to actually spend, right?

How do you reconcile situations where enormous economic growth is concurrent with rising levels of incoe disparity, and we see this in other developing economies as well. For instance, Brazil is 85% urbanized, has a hugely social emphasis on city planning and governance but has a Gini coeffieicent of 0.54 in 2009, where 1 indicates absolute inequality. That is considered fairly unpalatable and there is a fair amount of literature on how Brazil’s tax system in pro-rich, how the urban-rural divide is too stark and certainly there is now considerable focus on improving this figure.

As per economists Laveesh Bhandari and Suryakant Yadav, the urban Gini coefficient in India went from 0.35 in 2005 to 0.65 today (taken from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article on ‘How India Stumbled-Can New Delhi get its groove back?’ in Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012). Now this is really worrying, to me. And I tend to agree that we really need to look beyond purely pro-market moves to a more balanced vision of growth, even if it means bringing GDP down a few notches but actually ensuring a slightly more equitable distribution of that wealth.

I know that is a very socialist view and not appreciated by many (esp in the bourgeois wealth-driven mindset that we currently inhabit), but we must not forget that India was established, as per our Constitution as a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic.” Along with compromising on democracy (ref: FB arrests and the PIL filed by Shreya Singhal against Section 66A), and of course now and then questioning whether secular is really how we feel about ourselves, we are also moving away from our socialist intent as a people. I agree with many experts, who believe that India is at that place where it can choose its development path, and we can actually opt for a more inclusive, longer term vision of growth. Unfortunately, the political compulsions do not allow for that sort of decision making. And it falls on civil society, NGOs and other sorts of practitioners in the development space to find innovative ways to include the poor into the process of growth; and to constantly clamor for better policy, better implementation, better political will!

An emotional ride: Kids tell their stories of 10 years of Shikshantar- Sep 27, 2012

Shikshantar, where both my kids study, is celebrating its 10th birthday this week. Yesterday, the primary and secondary blocks threw their classrooms open to parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to take a peek at how they had expressed their journey in the school. The theme was Stories and narratives were central to the exhibits around the school.

Oh boy, it was an emotional ride. While the younger kids had attacked the theme with enthusiasm and gusto, the older ones clearly expressed a strong bond with their schoolmates and the institution. Hearing the teenage kids, I was transported back into a world where even the tiniest gestures by friends meant so much, when passions ran high and relationships were intense; when we felt strongly about everything in our lives, when adults were often perceived as enemies of fun.

It was a pleasure to see the comfort the kids shared with their teachers though. I visited in the late afternoon, when things were beginning to wind down. In most classes in middle and senior school, groups of kids were hanging out and having a lot of fun. And also chitchatting and laughing with their teachers.

Here are some pictures I took, that express the love and the bonding the kids feel with their school, its spaces, its people and the entire world it creates to nurture them.

Nitya shows us a model of senior school as they visualize it to be. This is Udai’s class exhibit

Dear to all of Udai’s class, this model is about the nostalgia of the pre-primary block. Vanar Vatika, their open air play space in J Block is shown in all its glory!

I loved this way of showing kids inside a pipe….the big pipe really does exist. You can crawl inside it and it is my personal favorite space in J Block

An interesting way for kids to express the favorite part of their day at Shikshantar. The school day comprises unique elements like circle time to encourage sharing and expression, daily outdoors and project time as well as choice time, where kids can revisit activities they enjoy

Middle schoolkids got a wee bit sentimental!

Comfortable and full of enjoyment!

A middle school student explaining their exhibit

The school was peppered by these larger than life paper dolls…very expressive!

They looked rather dramatic against the lawns….

Shikshantar is also where we parents meet our friends- Gauri and Preeti share a laugh

Preeti and me….one of those crazy ‘pose’ moments!

 

I loved these quirky little figurines the kids had made from old plastic bottled and waste material….cute ones and hilarious ones!

How can you not love that guy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s be honest, blogging is about getting the pats on the back! Reflections after talking at a Techmoms event- Sep 26, 2012

When I started writing my blog, a part of me craved recognition through it. After all, I was in the middle of changing careers and achievements seemed far away within the folds of my career path. Also, I was heartily sick of donning the journo hat, covering events, writing about what other people (many of whom I thought were complete idiots, even though they headed companies their fathers and grandfathers had started!) said or thought and even ghost writing articles for others. I wanted to be written about, talked about, discussed, admired, looked up to.

Of course, once I started blogging regularly, I put all of that ambition on the back burner and got into the business of making the blog work. For me first and then for my readers. Its taken a lot of sincerity and discipline to blog daily and certainly, it’s helped me grow as a writer and as a person. Simultaneously, my return to urban planning as a career worked out beautifully and I get immense satisfaction from what I do at mHS as well. I must appreciate the enabling and flexible environment mHS has provided to me to be able to work and write and do a million other things at the same time and the trust vested in me to go ahead and tackle projects, presentations and situations for mHS on my own.

But to get back to the issue of recognition… It felt really good to be on a public forum talking about my journey as a blogger today. Thanks to Fleximoms and Intel, who sponsored the Techmoms seminar today in Delhi.

It’s the passion that makes a blog(ger) tick!

It struck me that bloggers come from diverse backgrounds and come to blogging from very different places. Yet, there seem a few things in common. Honesty, a true desire to explore one’s own feelings and experience, a need to share. Blogging induces in a person a certain quality of self-reflection that we otherwise tend to miss in our daily lives. In that sense, it is like writing a diary. Even though it might be about a specific subject, a blog is usually about something the blogger is passionate about and so it works as a medium to express a suppressed or alternate or emerging personality. It was fascinating to hear from other women, and men too, how career choices change depending on the stage of life you are in. Because you want different things at different points.

Dealing with an overly connected world

And yes, it is indeed magical that technology and a changing world that offers multiple possibilities, allows us to make those changes in our careers. Reinvent ourselves. Grow.

Growing up, I watched my mother struggle to balance her numerous interests and passions with work. I couldn’t help admire her for being able to pursue so many of her hobbies, even if one at a time, with a demanding career (she’s a doc) and family demands. For our parents’ generation, a professional education was a highly respected thing and it demanded that you respect its boundaries as well. Security of employment was paramount and work and hobby were two distinct zones in your life.

For me, everything is intertwined and inter-related. It’s a world of busy chaos, where I sift through the rubble of my mind, picking up one piece of stone on one day and another relic on the other hand. At times, it all comes together in a clear, orchestrated set of activities that make connections with each other. At other times, things fly in opposing directions and I watch amused and exasperated, or frustrated and angry!

But that’s life! Through the activity of blogging and the clarity I need in my head to write about what I experience and feel everyday, I now see that the ups and downs have to be lived through. Knowing does not make it easier when you are low, but the blog gives me that small thing to look forward to, that tiny push that I need to haul myself out and put the smile back on my face again.

The hardest bit is being true to oneself, always

Another thing I heard at the event was that the world of social networking is an intrusive one. Definitions of privacy are changing and it’s hard to understand and manage our online lives. Often our personal experiences and actions are questioned unnecessarily and we are expected to be politically correct all the time. That can be tiring and plain unreal. Blogging allows us to be what we are and it’s something bloggers should never ever compromise on.

Ultimately its about what you want from your blog…

I don’t really know where I am going with my blog. I do know that once 2012 is over, I will have to reduce my frequency of blogging and go into a more reflective mode. I cannot sustain this intensity. But I also know that clear themes are emerging on this blog that can be explored separately or one by one. On the blog or off of it. It depends on how much of my life I want to devote to writing I suppose.

Other bloggers on the forum were heading for being published, writing books and other forms of recognition through their writing and knowledge. For me, I’m not yet sure what the next steps are.

But I do know that as long as I enjoy writing, I will do so. I cannot thank enough the people who read my blog and even though I didn’t believe in this sort of stuff before, I do sense the energies flowing in from the good wishes and critical appreciation of my readers. Every now and then, someone unexpected from my extended world of acquaintances pops up with a reference to my blog and it makes it that much more exciting to be a blogger! In the end I guess, despite the high brow fundas about self-improvement and personal journeys, it’s all about the pats on the back 🙂 At least for me, let me be honest, it always has been…

I now live a tangible part of my life on social networks! How did this happen? Sep 5, 2012

I started the journey into social networking with the mandatory Orkut account ages ago, and then Facebook. These were purely a way to get back in touch with long lost friends. And to take online the conversations with the current friends circle that we cannot have face to face as our lives are too busy! Sharing photos, thoughts and experiences were a natural extension.

But things began to change when I started blogging. To promote by blog, I tentatively got myself a twitter handle. I remember asking Nupur how the hell this thing worked! I was rather at sea. And inside me somewhere, I had this notion that spending hours on social media was a retarded thing to do! Well, things have changed drastically in just a few months. I am very much that excited moron today! And proud to be one.

How did this happen, and why? For a person like me, who thinks a zillion thoughts a day, whose interests lie in many different directions and who yearns to share, listen, debate and interact, social media is nothing short of a blessing. By offsetting my blog with just two sites- Facebook and Twitter, I can achieve a mix of interactions that keep me invigorated, excited, curious about life and the world around me.

The real serious stuff that I feel strongly about goes on my blog. That is a form of self expression. The communication with my friends tends to happen directly or via FB. The fun stuff, posting pics of my kids, outings or travel, the conversations about daily events- all that good stuff is what FB is about for me. Yes, I do follow pages of social causes I identify with or organizations I find relevant, but that is a secondary activity and does not occupy much mindspace.

Twitter is where I assume my professional, intellectual (ha!) persona. It started with a deliberate positioning and I decided to follow media, organizations and individuals related to urbanism, planning and design. But over a period of time, it has changed to include a whole bunch of what I term ‘thinking, liberal’ people as well. I enjoy reading a wide range of opinions on diverse issues. I love the opportunity Twitter provides to get into a meaningful conversation or stay out of something you don’t agree with it. Or voice disagreement and dissent if that is required.

Occasionally, the boundaries between FB and Twitter do melt. Kids pics appear on Twitter via Instagram (another wonderful app). And links that I consider good for wider reading do get shared on FB, like the editorial by Ranjit Sabikhi I shared today morning.

On the whole, social networking helps me stay updated and connected, especially important for a flexi-worker like me. I work for a small organization and there are limited opportunities for physical networking as my children are young and I have chosen to spend time at home to be with them. With four standard windows open on the browser- Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and WordPress, I feel empowered and engaged. Loneliness and boredom keep away and that’s pretty much what constitutes happiness, for the most part.

Yes, I do find myself wondering if living a life via social networking will impact my real world relationships adversely. Up until now, the real and virtual worlds are complementing each other beautifully. But I am aware that there is a need for caution. When you get used to sharing too much, some private, intimate and vital aspects get short shrift, because they are unsharable. So yes, I do know I need to carve out a lion’s share of space in my mind for the real world experiences that must, ultimately, feed my world on the social networks!

Too dependent on mega cities, we need fresh perspectives to urban growth! May 17, 2012

That the world is urbanizing rapidly is by now something we all understand. The implications of this massive shift in how humans live is still a subject of intense scrutiny and research among urban professionals, sociologists, geographers, demographers, economists and experts from a growing number of fields hitherto unrelated to spatial planning.

Delhi at No 4! An intriguing phenomenon of urbanization has been the formation of urban agglomerations, large urban areas that grow around a nuclear urban core and create a dense economic powerhouse that in turn attracts more businesses and people to it. In the latest edition of the Demographia World Urban Areas finds our own Delhi (along with its urban extensions in Haryana and UP) as the world’s 4th largest urban area, behind Tokya, Jakarta and Seoul. The cities considered big when we were growing up feature further down the list. New York comes in 7th. London, which ranked 3rd till the 1960s is not even in the largest 25 urban areas! Asian cities take center stage, followed by cities in South America and Africa. Within India, Mumbai (13th) and Kolkata (18th), usually considered larger urban concentrations that Delhi lag behind. Those in the real estate industry, who have been tracking closely the growing economic power of the Delhi National Capital Region, would perhaps not be so surprised as the rest of us.

The subcontinent is exploding! From a density perspective though, Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad and Jaipur are Indian cities that feature in the list of the ten densest cities in the world! Seven of these ten are in the South Asian subcontinent (add Dhaka, which tops the list, Chittagong and Karachi)! To me, these statistics have driven home the need for much more urgent responses to our urban issues. And since the problems are going to stay, we need long-term, sustainable solutions, not stop gap ones.

Fresh ideas please! To me, it also makes me worry that we are overdependent on urban agglomerations and mega cities. It shows a terrible lack of imagination on the part of policy makers and planners to be unable to give impetus to smaller towns and create new urban areas that offer economic opportunities and offer quality of life to residents at the same time. These might stand a better chance at building a sustainable foundation (environmentally and socially) than the mega cities, where interventions are expensive and hard to implement!

A vibrant construction industry based on shoddy treatment of laborers? Shame! 1 May, 2012

At work, I’m part of a team working to set up a system for certifying affordable housing projects. The initiative is that of the Ashoka Innovators for the Public and we at mHS are working on the aspects of the rating system that would impact the low-income community.

Anyway, during our discussions, we often come to the point where we wonder if the rating should consider whether the contractor uses ethical and legal practices for treatment and payment meted out to labor working on the project. If they use child labor, for instance, or use sub-standard shelter to house their labor, they should drop lower in the ratings, we think.

Today, on the occasion of Labor Day, The Hindu carried an excellent editorial written by Moushumi Basu on the subject. She spells out clearly the Acts contractors and construction companies violate when they pay lower wages, do not build decent shelter, do not ensure safe conditions for work, etc. Moreover, developers and construction companies who have ridden the wave of India’s GDP growth (and continue to do so despite slower growth) have no business to do this at the cost of the labor that works for them. It is a sad tale of mistreatment of those who have no voice. Besides the legality, where’s the humanity here? Would it really hurt to pass on a tiny bit of your profits towards improving the lives of those that made your projects possible, often risking their lives, migrating far from their homes?

So in our ratings projects, we’re really wondering….how do we factor in the humanity/ethics (or lack of these) of developers into ratings for affordable housing, where profit margins are lower than regular projects, when they fail to factor in regular projects where profit margins are decent?

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