Why peo­ple are aban­don­ing their vil­lages in Ut­tarak­hand

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Apo­lit­i­cal storm is brew­ing in Ut­tarak­hand. And as is the case with most po­lit­i­cal storms, at its cen­tre is a long-stand­ing so­cio-eco­nomic is­sue: mi­gra­tion. But un­like the inter-state mi­gra­tion wit­nessed in the Garhwal re­gion in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, mi­gra­tion now is in­tra-state—from ru­ral ar­eas in hilly dis­tricts to ur­ban cen­tres in the plains.

In the past two months, Ut­tarak­hand Chief Min­is­ter Harish Rawat has pub­licly spo­ken on the need to ar­rest mi­gra­tion at least four times. Protest marches have been held, pub­lic sem­i­nars or­gan­ised and a bill drafted to stop the hills of Ut­tarak­hand from los­ing their in­hab­i­tants. All in­di­ca­tors point to the making of the big­gest so­ciopo­lit­i­cal move­ment in the state since the ag­i­ta­tion for sep­a­rate state­hood in the 1990s. The sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion can be gauged from the fact that 9 per cent of the vil­lages of the state are vir­tu­ally un­in­hab­ited. As per Cen­sus 2011, of Ut­tarak­hand’s 16,793 vil­lages, 1,053 have no in­hab­i­tants and an­other 405 have a pop­u­la­tion of less than 10. The num­ber of such ghost vil­lages has re­port­edly risen par­tic­u­larly af­ter the earth­quake and flash floods of 2013. Re­cent me­dia re­ports put the num­ber at 3,500.

Take the case of Sani­yar, a set of twin vil­lages nes­tled in the hills, 20 km from Pauri dis­trict head­quar­ters. The vil­lages are com­pletely de­serted. Ac­cord­ing to res­i­dents from a nearby vil­lage, it has been about six years since Sani­yar’s res­i­dents aban­doned it. Trees and un­der­growth have swal­lowed both the vil­lages as well as the clear­ing in the for­est that once served as their ac­cess paths. The few houses that oc­cupy the space that is sup­posed to be Sani­yar are all locked.

Bit­gaon, lo­cated half-a-kilo­me­tre from Sani­yar, is a live­lier vil­lage. But it is not half as lively as it was a decade ago when it had 150 homes and a pop­u­la­tion of 500, says res­i­dent Pu­ran Singh, a sex­a­ge­nar­ian farmer. “Just like Sani­yar, the ex­o­dus in Bit­gaon too started in 2000s. The pop­u­la­tion has now come down to 175,” he says.

Mi­gra­tion is not new to Ut­tarak­hand. It reached a peak in the 1980s and fu­elled the de­mand for a sep­a­rate state, which ev­ery­one hoped would lead to eco­nomic growth and check mi­gra­tion. But cen­sus data and other re­cent re­ports show that the rate of mi­gra­tion from the hilly ar­eas of the state has in­creased af­ter it was formed in 2000. Only the des­ti­na­tion of mi­grants has changed and the phe­nom­e­non has turned into a self-prop­a­gat­ing cy­cle. Ex­perts say that mi­gra­tion leads to aban­don­ment of vil­lages which causes degra­da­tion of land, makes vil­lages un­liv­able, and fur­ther fu­els mi­gra­tion. In fact, the mi­gra­tion to cities has been in such great num­bers that Ut­tarak­hand has recorded the high­est in­crease in the share of ur­ban pop­u­la­tion in any of the Hi­malayan states of the coun­try while its ru­ral decadal growth rate is the low­est (see ‘Vi­cious cy­cle’ on p29).

“The is­sue is of over­all growth of the state. There are peo­ple who say there is noth­ing wrong in our farm­ers leav­ing the hills to find bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties. But in­stead of ask­ing what is wrong in mi­gra­tion, we should ask why is there still a need to mi­grate,” says en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Anil Joshi, who re­cently un­der­took a 20-day march across

Ut­tarak­hand as part of the Gaon Bachao An­dolan (“save vil­lage move­ment”) to ad­dress the is­sue of mi­gra­tion from vil­lages.

Lop­sided growth

Ut­tarak­hand has wit­nessed a high rate of eco­nomic growth since its for­ma­tion. But de­spite nine of the 13 dis­tricts in the state be­ing sit­u­ated in the hills, the lion’s share of this in­creased rev­enue has been re­ceived by dis­tricts that lie in the plains of the state. The state gov­ern­ment’s An­nual Plan 2013-14 shows that the per capita in­come in the vil­lages is much lower than in the plains. Ac­cord­ing to the state’s Direc­torate of Eco­nomics and Sta­tis­tics, only one of the hill dis­tricts has an av­er­age per capita in­come higher than the state av­er­age while the three dis­tricts in the plains oc­cupy the first three po­si­tions. And since eco­nomic pros­per­ity has largely been lim­ited to the three dis­tricts in the plains, the hills are con­tribut­ing the most to the mi­grant labour force.

Talk­ing to Down­ToEarth, the Speaker of Ut­tarak­hand’s Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly, Govind Singh Kun­jwal, who has been in­volved in ef­forts to check mi­gra­tion, said that lop­sided de­vel­op­ment, rather than a com­plete lack of de­vel­op­ment, is to blame for the fail­ure in stem­ming the out­flow. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey spon­sored by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment, about 88 per cent of the house­holds in the 18 sam­ple vil­lages in Pauri Garhwal and Almora dis­tricts had at least one mem­ber mi­grat­ing for em­ploy­ment. The sur­vey also found that about 90 per cent of the mi­grants from the two dis­tricts are long-term mi­grants

(who stay away from home for over one year).

The other ma­jor rea­son is lack of health­care fa­cil­i­ties. This is as true to­day as it was be­fore the for­ma­tion of the state. The health­care cen­tres that have opened are blighted by a se­vere lack of med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and serve, more of­ten than not, as re­fer­ral cen­tres to hos­pi­tals in cities such as Dehradun and Naini­tal. With much of the young and able-bod­ied youth hav­ing mi­grated, it is the el­derly who have to live with shoddy health­care fa­cil­i­ties. And they too want to move out.

“My son has shifted to Gur­gaon where he earns about R7,000 a month. I have be­gun hav­ing health trou­bles but there are no med­i­cal cen­tres nearby. Given the chance, I would move to a town,” says 65-year-old Bimla Devi, who is one of the only 11 peo­ple that pop­u­late Ban­dul, a vil­lage near Pauri.

Im­proved con­nec­tiv­ity, ed­u­ca­tion

To its credit, the state gov­ern­ment has greatly im­proved con­nec­tiv­ity to vil­lages in the hills. Of the 5,852 km of roads that have been built be­tween 2010-11 and 2014-15, al­most 4,000 km have been built in ru­ral ar­eas. Ac­cess to pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion has also im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly, with all hill dis­tricts hav­ing at least one pri­mary school for ev­ery two vil­lages, as per the Union Dis­trict In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem for Ed­u­ca­tion ( u-dise) 201314. But sim­i­lar growth is not vis­i­ble in the num­ber of high schools in hilly ar­eas. This means that most vil­lages have a defacto ur­ban de­pen­dency if they want a good ed­u­ca­tion. And, iron­i­cally, the in­crease in the rate of mi­gra­tion in Ut­tarak­hand can, in part, be at­trib­uted to the de­vel­op­men­tal achieve­ments of the state. As peo­ple at­tain ed­u­ca­tion, they sel­dom find suit­able em­ploy­ment in the hills and have lit­tle or no skills, or in­ter­est, in per­sist­ing with agri­cul­ture. Even for those who stay be­hind, it is a mat­ter of com­pul­sion rather than choice. “We wish some­body could find us an ac­com­mo­da­tion in the plains. Farming has stopped com­pletely and it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore ev­ery­one moves away,” says 63-year-old Pushpa Devi, Bimla Devi’s sis­ter-in-law.

For out­siders, par­tic­u­larly peo­ple from the cities, the hills are a sym­bol of soli­tude and peace and the phe­nom­e­non of mi­gra­tion sim­plis­ti­cally lin­ear, of­ten in­ter­preted as sim­ple vil­lage res­i­dents de­sert­ing their heav­enly abodes for crowded and pol­luted cities. The view from in­side is quite dif­fer­ent and far more per­ti­nent. “What out­siders fail to see is that vil­lages are com­mu­ni­ties and work only as com­mu­ni­ties. If even a third of the vil­lage is gone, it be­comes dif­fi­cult for the rest to stay back and put the pieces back to­gether,” says Pushpa Devi. This is more true of agri­cul­ture than any­thing else be­cause ac­tive farm plots in­ter­spersed with in­ac­tive ones are dif­fi­cult to man­age .

Bar­ren land­hold­ings

Land­hold­ings in Ut­tarak­hand are typ­i­cally small and seg­mented. Ac­cord­ing to the Wa­ter­shed Man­age­ment Direc­torate of the Ut­tarak­hand

gov­ern­ment, the av­er­age land­hold­ing in the state is about 0.68 ha, which is di­vided into sev­eral patches. This is much smaller than the na­tional av­er­age of 1.16 ha per farmer. This means vil­lages that have wit­nessed mi­gra­tion in the re­cent past now have to deal with sev­eral plots of un­tended land in­ter­spersed with ac­tive farm­land. Un­tended land turns bar­ren or is cov­ered with by re­silient weeds and shrubs (such as Lan­tana and Parthe­nium) that are very dif­fi­cult to clear. More­over, such land is be­ing in­creas­ingly man­aged by im­mi­grants from Nepal. “Own­ers pre­fer leas­ing out their land to Nepalese labour­ers in­stead of peo­ple from their own vil­lage. This gives them a sense of se­cu­rity that the land can­not be usurped,” points out Ajay Joshi, a farmer from Mun­siari in Pithor­a­garh dis­trict. For in­stance, Arjun Singh, a for­mer labourer from Nepal has leased about 0.4 ha close to Pauri town at R10,000 per year where he has been farming for the past three years. “We used to be sea­sonal labour­ers, but as pieces of land started be­ing va­cated, many of us stayed to con­tinue farming on leased lands from those who had left,” he says.

A re­port by the Sashas­tra Seema Bal, a para­mil­i­tary force that guards In­dia’s bor­ders, in Oc­to­ber claimed that 128 fam­i­lies from Nepal have pro­cured doc­u­ments that prove both In­dian and Nepali cit­i­zen­ships.

Such fac­tors have caused a per­cep­ti­ble de­cline in agri­cul­ture, which is still the back­bone of the ru­ral econ­omy and em­ploys more than 60 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Ut­tarak­hand. Ac­cord­ing to the Union Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, the net sown in area in the state has de­clined by around 10 per cent, from 769,944 ha in 2000-01 to 701,030 ha in 2013-14.

Ex­perts cite an­other rea­son for the de­cline of farming in the state—ex­tremely ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion of wel­fare schemes like the Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act ( mgnrega). “Farming in Ut­tarak­hand has tra­di­tion­ally been sus­te­nance agri­cul­ture. But now farm­ers work un­der mgnrega and use the money to buy food which is avail­able at very low costs af­ter the en­force­ment of the Food Se­cu­rity Act. Farm­ers now see agri­cul­ture as an ac­tiv­ity not worth the ef­fort,” says Prakash Mo­han Chan­dola, pres­i­dent of non-profit Bharatiya Gramot­than Sanstha, which works for ru­ral de­vel­op­ment in Ut­tarak­hand.

Dheeraj Ku­mar of Ban­dul vil­lage is one such

per­son who has been sup­port­ing him­self solely through so­cial wel­fare schemes. “I have sent both my chil­dren to Pauri to stay with my sis­ter and study. Here, I can eas­ily man­age with­out work­ing in the farms. I make R7,500 for 50 days of work in a year on mgnrega projects and can pro­cure rice, wheat and coarse grains at R3 and R 2 and R1 per kg,” he says.

Leop­ards on the prowl

Tracts of un­tended land have given birth to an­other prob­lem: in­creased hu­man-an­i­mal con­flicts. This has fur­ther fu­elled mi­gra­tion. Bar­ren land in Ut­tarak­hand is dif­fer­ent from bar­ren land else­where be­cause shrub­bery quickly takes root. “With the de­cline in pop­u­la­tion in vil­lages, we have seen a marked rise in in­ci­dences of con­flict with wild an­i­mals. Pop­u­la­tions of wild boars and mon­keys too have in­creased and have made farming dif­fi­cult. They dam­age prac­ti­cally ev­ery­thing that is grown,” says Virendra Singh, a farmer in Chamoli dis­trict.

The far more feared con­flict is the one with leop­ard. As farming and the num­ber of live­stock in the hills have re­duced, leop­ards have started de­scend­ing the slopes and wan­der­ing into hu­man

set­tle­ments in search of food. Cam­ou­flaged by the wild veg­e­ta­tion that has in­fested va­cant farm­lands, leop­ard can eas­ily reach habi­ta­tions with­out be­ing sighted and their at­tacks have be­come far more fre­quent in re­cent years. Ac­cord­ing to Man­age­mentofH umanWildlifeI nter­ac­tions

andIn­va­siveAlienSpeciesinIn­dia2015, a re­port pub­lished by Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia (wii), Dehradun, the prob­lem of leop­ard-hu­man con­flict has be­come chronic in Ut­tarak­hand while in other parts of the coun­try it has re­duced. On an av­er­age, 50 peo­ple are killed ev­ery year by leop­ards in the state, says the re­port.

De­plet­ing wa­ter ta­ble

A de­ple­tion in the wa­ter ta­ble of the state is also pos­si­bly linked to mi­gra­tion. Al­though there has been no of­fi­cial study on the cor­re­la­tion be­tween the dry­ing up of wa­ter sources and mi­gra­tion, it is in­ter­est­ing to note that the three dis­tricts that have reg­is­tered the high­est mi­gra­tion rates are also the dis­tricts that have wit­nessed max­i­mum de­ple­tion in wa­ter sources. “Ear­lier, there was no short­age of wa­ter but of late there has been a sea­sonal short­age even in drink­ing wa­ter, let alone wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion. There are quite a few peo­ple who have left vil­lages due to this,” says Su­nil Singh, a vil­lage res­i­dent from Chauku­tiya tehsil in Almora.

Agri­cul­ture in Ut­tarak­hand is pri­mar­ily rain­fed, with ir­ri­ga­tion ca­pac­ity lim­ited to the plains in the state. “Agri­cul­ture in the hills and moun­tains of the state is only pos­si­ble due to the ex­is­tence of springs and moun­tain streams. There is very lit­tle in terms of ir­ri­ga­tion in­fra­struc­ture in the higher al­ti­tudes. The streams and springs act as a life­line,” ex­plains Ravi Cho­pra, pro­fes­sor and wa­ter man­age­ment ex­pert at Peo­ple’s In­sti­tute of Science in Dehradun. In re­cent years, there has been an un­prece­dented dry­ing up of streams and springs which has cre­ated a wa­ter stress in sev­eral re­gions of the state.

Ac­cord­ing to P C Ti­wari, pro­fes­sor of geography at Ku­maun Univer­sity, about 37 per cent of the nat­u­ral springs that con­trib­ute to the Ganga river sys­tem are rapidly dry­ing up. “Peren­nial streams have now be­come rain-fed streams and sev­eral rain-fed streams have dried up. About eight per cent of the first or­der springs, which do not have any trib­u­tary, have dried up at a rate of about six-seven kilo­me­tres per year. Then there are also peren­nial springs that have be­come sea­sonal and this has im­pacted the avail­abil­ity of drink­ing wa­ter, wa­ter for san­i­ta­tion and ir­ri­ga­tion in many re­gions,” he says.

Ti­wari’s ob­ser­va­tions have been cor­rob­o­rated by the Ut­tarak­hand Jan Sansthan record­ings. Ac­cord­ing to a study of 500 sources of wa­ter over 11 dis­tricts of the state, over 70 per cent of the wa­ter sources had de­pleted by more than 75 per cent in the four dis­tricts of Pauri (al­most 86 per cent), Almora (over 76 per cent), Tehri (over 75 per cent) and Pithor­a­garh (al­most 71 per cent).

Course cor­rec­tion

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers be­lieve ad­dress­ing the de­cline in agri­cul­ture should be the first step to­wards check­ing mi­gra­tion be­cause farming is the main oc­cu­pa­tion in the state. “Any is­sue that plagues the vil­lages can­not be re­solved with­out solv­ing prob­lems re­lated to agri­cul­ture. The only rea­son Ut­tarkashi and our val­ley of Ravai have not wit­nessed the kind of mi­gra­tion seen in other hill dis­tricts is be­cause farming is still pop­u­lar among the youth,” says Vi­jay­pal Rawat from Ut­tarkashi which saw a decadal pop­u­la­tion growth of 11.89 per cent be­tween 2001 and 2011.

Though en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors have started play­ing a role, the is­sue of mi­gra­tion re­mains pri­mar­ily so­cio-eco­nomic. The good news is that farm­ers are start­ing to re­alise that most of the con­cerns aris­ing out of shrink­ing of vil­lages can be tack­led by band­ing to­gether as against car­ry­ing on separately. The idea of co­op­er­a­tive farming is slowly gath­er­ing steam in ru­ral Ut­tarak­hand as a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional in­di­vid­ual farming. One such farm, Gauri Swayam Sa­hay­ata Sa­muha has 26 fam­i­lies col­lec­tively farming on about two ha of pooled land in Gau­rikot vil­lage about seven kilo­me­tres from Pauri. Sup­ported by a R5 lakh loan taken from A R Co­op­er­a­tive, the group has in­vested in hor­ti­cul­ture, fish farming, poul­try farming and ver­mi­cul­ture. The col­lec­tive makes use of new tech­nolo­gies like hand-held power trac­tors to in­crease ef­fi­ciency in the farms.

“When Nepalese labour­ers and farm­ers can suc­cess­fully run rented farms, why can’t we? And as for be­ing a col­lec­tive, it just made more sense. One of the big prob­lems here is the wildlife— leop­ards, pigs and mon­keys. It can be hell if you have to stay up night af­ter night to look over your crops but it be­comes man­age­able if the re­spon­si­bil­ity is shared,” ex­plains Anil Rawat, a for­mer farm labourer and founder of the col­lec­tive.

Ja­nard­han Singh Rawat of Uligram pan­chayat nar­rates a sim­i­lar story. Fam­i­lies in the vil­lage have started cul­ti­vat­ing mandwa (a tra­di­tional food­grain) and mush­room on a col­lec­tive ba­sis and have been reap­ing the ben­e­fits. “Ev­ery­thing from soil-re­lated work to har­vest is be­ing done col­lec­tively in our vil­lage. We have been pro­duc­ing

mandwa flour for the past year and to­day have a de­mand of about 45 tonnes. The ef­fort has been so suc­cess­ful that even fam­i­lies who have mi­grated have be­gun ask­ing that their fields, now gone bar­ren, be in­cluded in the co­op­er­a­tive,” says Rawat.

In fact, even the gov­ern­ment is sup­port­ing pi­lot projects in­cen­tivis­ing co­op­er­a­tive farming. In Marora, sit­u­ated at an al­ti­tude of 1,3001,395 m, the gov­ern­ment is ex­per­i­ment­ing with col­lec­tive farming to re­claim land that has gone bar­ren. Pool­ing to­gether 8 ha held by 48 farm­ers, the gov­ern­ment is en­cour­ag­ing plan­ta­tion of hor­ti­cul­tural crops such as pomegranate. “We have been pro­vid­ing tis­sue-cul­tured spec­i­mens of pomegranate to farm­ers at R45 per sapling which

Bill to ar­rest mi­gra­tion

The state gov­ern­ment has taken cog­ni­sance of the prob­lem of mi­gra­tion. On Oc­to­ber 6, it re­leased a draft version of a land con­sol­i­da­tion ( chak­bandi) bill to push for re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of bar­ren agri­cul­tural in­cludes trans­porta­tion and mulching sheets to re­duce losses in­volved in tra­di­tional farming. Af­ter har­vest, the prof­its are shared on a per tree ba­sis. As a re­sult, though the land is held by 48 fam­i­lies, 80 fam­i­lies have ben­e­fit­ted in Marora. More­over, wa­ter man­age­ment with the help of govern­men­tal ir­ri­ga­tion schemes for pipe lay­ing and lift-ir­ri­ga­tion has im­proved due to shar­ing of re­sources,” says Naveen Singh Barphal, deputy project di­rec­tor, In­te­grated Liveli­hood Sup­port Project di­vi­sion at the wa­ter­shed man­age­ment direc­torate in Pauri.

Al­though schemes have worked in im­prov­ing the liv­ing con­di­tions of vil­lage res­i­dents in a few ar­eas, there is also a per­cep­tion that the ini­tia­tives are in­ad­e­quate be­cause they are of­ten mis­aligned with the needs of vil­lages. “The lack of fa­cil­i­ties and en­vi­ron­men­tal bur­dens are driv­ing mi­gra­tion be­cause they con­trib­ute to an over­whelm­ing sense of help­less­ness among farm­ers. There is a need to elim­i­nate this help­less­ness. Un­for­tu­nately, most schemes are cen­tralised and tar­get-ori­ented, not need-ori­ented, and of­ten pro­vide sup­port that the farm­ers don’t need,” says Akhilesh Dimri, se­nior project man­ager of Reliance Foun­da­tion, work­ing at Jakol vil­lage in Ut­tarkashi. land hold­ings in the hills by con­sol­i­dat­ing small and scat­tered hold­ings.

“The draft is a solid plan to ar­rest mi­gra­tion and en­cour­age farming which is nec­es­sary in the state. We hope to use a car­rot-and-stick pol­icy to in­cen­tivise con­sent for con­sol­i­da­tion,” says Anil Bahuguna, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of the draft­ing com­mit­tee.

The gov­ern­ment has in­vited sug­ges­tions from the pub­lic and will in­tro­duce it in the As­sem­bly in Jan­uary. Ac­cord­ing to a state­ment made by state agri­cul­ture min­is­ter Harish Rawat on Oc­to­ber 6, a to­tal of 200 vil­lages have been iden­ti­fied to spread aware­ness about land con­sol­i­da­tion.

“Chak­bandi is our bright­est hope to bring de­vel­op­ment to the hills and I hope it is im­ple­mented suc­cess­fully,” says Ganesh Singh Garib, a noted so­cial ac­tivist who has been the pi­o­neer­ing voice in the move­ment for land con­sol­i­da­tion in Ut­tarak­hand. Ad­dress­ing a two-day sem­i­nar on mi­gra­tion, ti­tled Palayan

EkChin­tan (“Re­think­ing mi­gra­tion”) in Pauri on Oc­to­ber 25, Ut­tarak­hand Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly Speaker, Govind Singh Kun­jwal, said the only way to tackle mi­gra­tion is by launch­ing a pop­u­lar move­ment sim­i­lar to the one that re­sulted in state­hood. The Speaker ended his speech by in­vok­ing a pop­u­lar phrase of the state­hood move­ment— Jal,Jun­gle,Zameen (“wa­ter, for­est, land”). How­ever, it is iron­i­cal that th­ese are the three re­sources re­spon­si­ble for driv­ing peo­ple away from the hills.

Bimla Devi and Pushpa Devi are the only women left in Ban­dul vil­lage near Pauri. The to­tal pop­u­la­tion of the vil­lage is 11

Bit­gaon vil­lage near Pauri once had a pop­u­la­tion of around 500. The num­ber is now down to 175

In Ut­tarak­hand,

when peo­ple mi­grate, their lands quickly turn

bar­ren be­cause weeds and shrubs take root and are dif­fi­cult to clear

Joy Hukil (ex­treme right) is one of the two

shoot­ers per­mit­ted to hunt man-eaters in Ut­tarak­hand. At­tacks by an­i­mals have made farming dif­fi­cult in the hills and fu­elled


Rekha Devi of Gau­rikot vil­lage near Pauri tills her land us­ing a hand-held trac­tor. She is part of a co­op­er­a­tive farming ini­tia­tive in Ut­tarak­hand

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