Can the Communities of Northeast India Make a Plan for their Own Development?

In his promised goal of achieving a five trillion dollar economy by 2024, the Narendra Modi led BJP government banks upon extraction of the last of India’s natural resources found in the Constitutionally protected tribal belts of the country. This provides a means to some sections of society to get rich quickly while the party reaps electoral dividends. The greatest challenge to such access comes from the tribal states of Northeast India where strong Constitutional protections and community cohesion have empowered communities with unprecedented power to chart their own development path and destiny within India’s federal structure.

The Indian Constitution, one of the most sensitive in the world to the rights of its minorities, ensures that tribal communities in Northeast states like Nagaland and Mizoram are the sole owners of their land and resources. No act of the Indian Parliament can undo this right. There are however two ways in which that right can be undone: Their own State Assembly can pass legislation abdicating this right. The other alternative is communities or individual land owners can be persuaded to voluntarily sell or hand over their land to government, private companies or corporations for projects that come in the name of their ‘development’.

As the forces of ‘development’ hurtle towards them, many in the Northeast say they are walking a tightrope. Their people desperately need basic infrastructure and means of livelihood. What kind of development will this be and how will it ensure benefit to local communities? Will it be sustainable for their land and in tune with their cultural values? Above all, does it protect their Constitutional rights assuring sole ownership of land and its resources to tribal communities? Acutely aware of the need to identify the pitfalls of the development process, the mistakes made and the lessons to be learnt, they stress the need for local communities to develop their own Master Plan for development.

Successive Indian governments have subverted these Constitutional protections promised to the tribal people. Their development model idealises industrialisation built on sweat shop labour, a Singapore style model of urbanisation and mining of the country’s remaining natural resources leaving nothing for future generations. In this plan India’s vast agriculture base would be subjected to mechanisation and corporatisation, while areas of public concern — health, education, infrastructure development would be handed over to the for-profit private sector. There is no focus on building human resources through investment in knowledge and skills base of the youth, or of engaging them in creative production and independent livelihood.

NE communities are learning that accepting projects without adequate thought causes long term damage. Take the experience of the Angami tribe of Khonoma village in Kohima district, the birthplace of the Naga struggle for independence from India. After long decades of bitter fighting, bloodshed and suffering, Khonoma also yearned for peace and development. The opening of the region to outside forces brought with it many new ideas without communities having a clear understanding of its long term consequences.

One such idea Khonoma enthusiastically embraced in the mid-1980’s was moving into cash crop cardamom cultivation. This implied transiting from traditional agricultural production that had given the village food self-sufficiency and independence. It made Khonoma a part of the globalised world, long before the village had heard of this term. The community thought it had hit a gold mine until the international price of cardamom fell during the Iran-Iraq war, leaving them with huge unsold stocks. It brought home the lesson that an economy dependent on cash crop cultivation can also lead to their own economic crash. It was a lesson learnt the hard way.

Another lesson Khonoma learnt too late, was that they had a right to question the development that was being thrust upon them. The village is now discovering that across the NE, the coming of multi-lane super highways and byways that cut through rich biodiversity hotspots is also opening the pristine forests to plunder. This is happening with the active participation of some youth in the local community, desperate for sources of easy cash. “How could we stand in the way of development”, said a village elder. Having handed over portions of their vast community lands, free of charge.for the building of such roads, the village now finds it has no one but itself to blame for not anticipating what can go wrong.

In yet another instance, when the Central government gave Khonoma a Rs.3 crore eco-tourism project, most of the village had no interest in welcoming outsiders into their village, but saw an opportunity to refurbish its crumbling infrastructure. Its restive youth saw tourism as an opportunity for income generation. Their kinsmen living in the city were determined to ensure control of the funds which otherwise ended up in the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. The project saw divided agendas and a tearing apart of the social fabric. The villagers said they had not understood the consequences of what big money can do to their society when it comes without a clear plan and consensus over its control and use.

Destroying all that shapes their sense of being, values and identity, such ’development’ has already served to make ecological nomads of the rural poor. In many areas of the NE, such as the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, where coal mining has been long underway, the rural poor are no longer owners of their golden community owned lands and sparkling water sources. What you see instead are mountains of coal heaps that choke their water sources and agricultural lands. The rural elites, rich from the spoils of private coal mining, have moved out to buy new homes in Shillong, while the poor make a desperate plea for help.

“A desperate need for cash to support education or health is alienating rural communities from theircommon resources, forcing them to sell their forests and agricultural lands to government, corporate and local elites”, said Akole Tsuhah, a member of Northeast Network, an NGO working on development issues. The commercial exploitation of coal, gas, uranium and other natural resources has begun to cause severe ecological imbalance and the disappearance of the last vestiges of India’s biodiversity. Communities meanwhile, have yet to understand that loss of their land and natural resources amounts to loss of their independence and their future, she said.

The new economic and development policies spell disruption of traditional cultures and lifestyles that form the social and human capital of this region. When communities do not consult and use the power vested in them, the balance tilts towards those bringing in the capital and know-how with regard to what the market wants, how to reach it, who gets to represent local producers or decide the use of traditionally owned intellectual property rights over usage of tribal designs, symbols and names. The emerging conflicts have led to some messy confrontations. How to deal with hard nosed outsiders who do not know the value of their word; how to ensure that local communities sit in the driving seat, are issues that need greater attention.

A recent instance of such conflict saw the sorry spectacle of a Naga women’s organisation issuing a public notice warning a non-local entrepreneur against setting foot in their district, while also castigating a highly reputed local NGO for allowing this person entry into their community. In their view, several boundaries had been brashly crossed. These instances highlight

precisely why a clearly thought through Master Plan in all areas of development and interaction is required. In its absence there is cause for internal conflict and strife. It diverts attention from the real issue of protecting their land, resources and rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution.

Development learning NE communities can teach the rest of India

As the Indian Government eyes the last remaining natural resource rich areas of our country, the NE is being systematically prised open for a variety of ‘development’ activities like monoculture cash crop cultivation such as palm oil plantations, coal and iron ore mining, tourism and industrialisation. Strikingly missing in these policy pronouncements however, is the affirmation and voices of local communities, particularly its rural poor, who have long agitated against the extractive model of development being perpetuated in their name. The government announcements take no cognisance of what they have been saying since decades.

The many manifestations of agitation in these regions, peaceful or otherwise, ongoing since the time of Indian Independence, have all ultimately been saying there has to be room in this country for people who think differently and want to live differently. They seek to be masters of their own destiny. We in the rest of India need to understand that they are perhaps the last bastions of resistance left against rapacious, extractive policies that seek to bankrupt the earth within the lifespan of one generation, while making this country a barren wasteland. Government development policies seek to usurp control of land and resources that has long been held by NE tribal groups.

Supported by the special protection offered by the Constitution of India the tribal people have honoured the trust placed in them. While the rest of India stripped the plains land of its natural resources, these tribal areas still harbour hotspots of biodiversity, amongst the last of the gene pools left on our planet. These constitute the Himalayan belt (Kashmir, Northeast- Myanmar area), the Central Indian tribal belt, Western Ghats and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The tribal culture of nature worship, egalitarian social values and sustainable practices have long protected the forests, water sources, medicinal plants and organic food varieties still growing abundantly in these parts.

My over three decades of explorations in the Northeast since 1980, reveal tribal cultural traditions that ensure sustainable use of resources. Rooftop rainwater harvesting was practised in the hill areas of Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur long before it became the buzzword in urban parlance. The agriculture water sharing practices of Khonoma village or micro ponds of Kikruma village in Nagaland are fine examples how every drop of rain water is captured, nurtured and judiciously shared by the community. Villages that control the water rich Western Angami region and have long protected the fragile eco-systems here, are discovering new dimensions to trusteeship of resources. They are on the verge of an agreement to supply water to Kohima the capital city, long starved of this resource.

The community forests that exist at the outer periphery of many Naga villages ensure access to nutrition even in times of ‘lockdown’ — evidence of the remarkable local food self-sufficiency and sovereignty of the villages here. The forests enable foraging of over 100 different wild fruits, vegetables, leaves and tubers. They provide timber for housing, while being a repository of the medicinal plants found in the biodiversity of these areas. The scientifically managed jhum or slash and burn cultivation in these parts ensure that the smoke is controlled and the soil retains natural nutrients, enabling organic farming.

Northeast tribes have demonstrated the power of community commons and cohesive action. Nagaland has shown some pioneering examples of State legislation that empowers communities to partner with government in the development process. The Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institutions and Services Act of 2002, for instance, enables communities to manage and control the local electricity and water supply. It enables the village council to pay the salaries of teachers in government schools and who in turn, are accountable to it. The creation of the Village Development Boards during the 11th Plan (2007-2012), sees rural communities partnering with government in creating their own infrastructure assets.

Initiating a ‘think tank’ on development, Chakhesang tribe youth in Phek district analysed the adverse impact Mithun (wild buffalo) rearing has on common grazing grounds and water sources. Highlighting alternative development, Chizami village for instance, saw the rise of a cadre of trained village health workers; a weaving centre that exports its products nationally and internationally; the creation of a millet bank that documents the precious and infinite varieties of seeds found in this area. In neighbouring Leshemi village, the near extinct art of nettle weaving has been revived to produce natural fabric and products of a very high order, while Enhulumi village has revived cultivation of the original organic cotton yarn.

Elsewhere in the NE communities, socially cohesive rural communities demonstrate how they are temporarily staving the conflicts created by jobless youth. In 2018 a visit to the Rabha Autonomous District Council area of Assam, saw a village panchayat in durbar, discussing the illegal felling of twenty sal trees from the community forest by two unemployed young men from their community. The youth confessed that they had sold the timber to buy mobile phones. The village elders took enormous pains to explain to them the long term consequences of their action. It passed a resolution that their punishment was planting and nurturing of 20 new trees to replace the grievous loss. Sheep faced, the young men readily agreed to comply. How to engage their youth in livelihood opportunities remains a challenge, the elders said.

Traditional tribal societies with their strong cultures of cohesive action that work in the long term interest of the community and the earth have long shown us how true democracy works. This is achieved through their tradition of endless debate and discussion, over days, weeks, months, sometimes years, until everyone is on the same page and a consensus is reached. This is how customary laws evolve and get effectively implemented after all sides are convinced of the validity of the right path to pursue. Similarly in tribal tradition, leaders are chosen by the community and made answerable to them — a practise subverted by modern day elections, where a distant party office decides the issue with remote control.

Drawing lessons from international public health and development experience

While debating a ‘Master Plan’ on the kind of development we seek, we need to draw upon the experience of older civilisations from Africa and the Southern Hemisphere countries. These nations with a long history of colonisation and experience of a process known as ‘Structural Adjustment’, have an understanding of the pitfalls of development that has a debilitating impact on the health of the earth and survival of future generations.

When ‘Structural Adjustment’ was initiated in India during the 1990’s, few Indians understood what it meant. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where it had started earlier, the programme initiated by international funding institutions like World Bank and International Monetary Fund, linked aid to economic reform policies. Forced into massive schemes for cash crop coffee cultivation at the cost of local food self-sufficiency, the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa went into a down spin when international coffee prices crashed, plunging them into turmoil. It led to political instability, social unrest, food riots in the streets, widespread import of food, mounting debt, external controls, that went on for decades. This brought huge health consequences that continue to today.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the loss of local nutrition security over the course of three or four generations saw the rise of ‘maternal depletion syndrome’. Medical science recognises this syndrome where the nutrition pool that protects the natural immunity, passed down the generations from grandmother to mother, to daughter, gets depleted with devastating health impact. This nutrition depletion gives rise to suppression of the immune system and diseases such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fever, HIV/AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa records the story of how loss of local food security is closely linked to the loss of health and national sovereignty.

India walks on that trajectory today as it ignores vital agriculture reforms for the protection of small farmers and their land holdings. The government is seeking to allow the inflow of corporate giants – both national and international – that seek to grab land and the last vestiges of natural resources, while pushing the poor into bonded slave labour and impoverishment. The impact of environment destruction, chemical and pesticide use in agriculture, widespread mining are also some facets of ‘development’ that sees the displacement of the microbes from their natural habitats and the health consequences for humankind everywhere. Covid 19 has already brought this apocalypse upon us.

The communities of the NE states, supported by its media and writers, along with a new crop of young political and social leaders who are rooted in their communities and accountable to them, are today ideally placed to start a nationwide debate on what kind of development they seek. They can also explain why we in the rest of India need to support NE communities in their goals. For this to happen the NE states first need to listen and learn from each other. Shunning piecemeal solutions, they can find a common platform that speaks with one voice to the rest of India and the government. Indians everywhere must realise that it is in supporting this struggle for community empowerment — as pledged by India’s Constitution — that is the key to a sustainable future for all.

What India’s Constitution envisaged for India’s minorities

Although India’s population of 1.2 billion is overwhelmingly Hindu, it is also a nation of diverse minorities. Census data shows that of the three main minority groups, Dalits are 16.6 per cent (described as Scheduled Castes), Adivasi are 8.6 percent (Scheduled Tribes), while its Muslim population of 14.2 per cent has the greatest number of followers of Islam than any country of the Middle East or North Africa. Along with the small groups of Christians (2.3 per cent), Sikhs (1.7%), Buddhists (0.7%) they, in combine, form a solid block of over 40 per cent that is often in conflict with a majoritarian viewpoint on issues of justice and equality.

With India’s democratic credentials increasingly questioned over its treatment of minority groups, it has compelled many Indians to reflect on the rights of indigenous minority communities. Why has the Indian Constitution given so much importance to the protection of the Scheduled Tribe and Caste groups of this country and what commitment did we, as a nation, make to them? How did this special sensitivity come about and what does it mean for our future?

India’s Constitution is a unique document that is unparalleled because of its special sensitivity to minority protection and rights. As chairman of its drafting committee, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar played a crucial role in the discussion, wording and piloting of the Constitution Bill in undivided India’s then Constituent Assembly, a process that took three years. He, along with other legal experts representing diverse communities, and supported by the founding fathers, conferred special recognition to the rights of ‘a nation within a nation’. This was a pledge to protect the autonomy and rights of minorities and small nationalities, enabling them to forge their own destiny politically, culturally and developmentally, while being part of the larger democratic fold.

However, as the records of the Constituent Assembly discussions show, these special minority protection rights were not conferred through the largesse of a majority community which was still stuck in its majoritarian and assimilative mindset. They were won because of the struggle and intellectual abilities of the leaders representing these minority groups. Modern day India has yet to acknowledge the facts of history of that time and understand that every Indian is bound to honour the commitments and pledges made in our Constitution if we are serious about moving forward as one nation amidst our rich diversity.

A reading of history shows that Gandhi’s goals for the freedom struggle included elimination of caste, Hindu- Muslim unity and Swaraj. The last goal however, became the only over arching pursuit of the Congress Hindu leaders of that time. Great leaders though they undoubtedly were, historic records show they had no intention of sharing power with the Muslims. It led to suspicion and a determined bid for a separate nation of Pakistan by Muslim League leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. As for the Dalits and tribals, their’s was still a position of subservience to the ruling class enthralled by its culture of racial superiority.

How then did a Dalit leader like Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar emerge as a national leader in such an environment of social insensitivity? Historical evidence shows that it was the Muslim League that first enabled Dr. Ambedkar’s entry into the Constituent Assembly (CA) from the pre-Partition legislature of undivided Bengal. It was here that his powerful articulation and brilliance made a mark nationally, setting the stage for recognition to minority rights that finally won the day.

It was the post Partition CA debates of 1949 that also saw tribal leaders like Reverend J.J.M. Nichols-Roy, a Khasi from the hill areas of then Assam Province (now Meghalaya), and Jaipal Singh, a Munda from the Central Indian tribal belt, putting up a brilliant fight for special protective rights for the tribal people of India. It resulted in the incorporation of the 5th and 6th Schedules of the Constitution, applicable to the Central Indian tribals and the Northeast respectively. They protected the rights of the indigenous tribal people to own their land, forests and natural resources and to live by their own culture, administration and justice systems.

Special protective rights for the tribal people was however, not palatable to the many non-tribal members of the CA. The record of debates of that time revealed the attitudes of racial and cultural superiority that the plains dwelling Indian harboured towards the tribal. As one such member, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri argued “We want to assimilate the tribal people. We were not given theopportunitysofar”.

During these debates, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri and other plains leaders raised questions that find an echo today as well. Doubts were expressed, such as why tribal land could not be purchased by a non-tribal, as proposed in the new legislation? Why did the tribals want their own autonomous district councils to educate their people in the art of self governance, when they could have local self government through a municipality? Wouldn’t regional councils undermine village laws of the numerically diverse tribes? If they were kept aloof and in isolation would that not deepen the divide with the rest of India and draw them towards Tibet or Burma? Tribals are being instigated to hate Indians, he asserted.

The manner in which the tribal leaders responded to these questions on minority protection, challenged the mindset of the majority. They hold as much relevance today, as they did then, be it for the Northeast, the Central Indian tribal belt or Kashmir. Their insights hold an unclouded mirror to Indian society’s democratic maturity and how we are viewed by those living on its margins and at its peripheries.

Expressing shock at the venom poured forth against the tribal people, Jaipal Singh said, “The vehement language of some of our Members inclines towards power solutions…They want to force the tribal people of Assam (then an undivided Province of the hills and plains areas) to do things against their wishes and expressed will. I suggest that is no solution at all. If you do that you are certainly going to bring about what you fear….you are going to bring about a further disintegration of India….We must inspire confidence in our fellow citizens, in the hearts of the tribals of these hills. ….let us do it genuinely and sincerely and not try to run them down and think of them as though they were hostile to the Indian Union. They are not.”

Mr. Jaipal Singh told the CA members that the tribal leaders were initially unconvinced about the provisions of the 6th Schedule and its capacity to meet their needs and aspirations. The government representatives in the Tribal Sub-Committee persuaded them to climb down and do away with their agitation. They accepted the recommendations as they were based on the evidence given by the hill people about the liberal ethos of their own institutions. “These are understanding and agreements that have to now be honoured,” he said. “I am very optimistic about future of Assam particularly if the Sixth Schedule, even with all its shortcomings, is operated…. in a spirit of accommodation and in the real, desire to serve the hill people of Assam, as our compatriots …. whom we will make any amount of sacrifice so that they may remain with us”, he said.

Rev J.J.M. Nichols Roy urged the CA members to personally visit the tribal areas, to read available literature on them and know the people before casting aspersions of hostility on them. The first principle of reconciliation between estranged people is to put yourself in the shoes of the other, he urged. How would you feel if your feelings and aspirations are crushed by the sword? Would you not like to be won by love, by association and by gradual understanding of one another, he asked.

Speaking plainly about the plainsman’s desire for “assimilation” of the tribal people into their questionable culture, Rev Nichols Roy said the tribal culture was not plagued with difference of class or caste, purdah or child marriage. It is an egalitarian culture that sees a Raja and a labourer sit and eat together. The hills tribal can claim they have a better system that the plains of India has never seen.

“The whole of India has not reached that level of equality…..You say I am educated and you are uneducated and because of that you must sit at my feet. …India should rise to that feeling or idea of equality and real democracy which the tribal people have. They should not for a second think that these people should give up their democracy and equality and be swallowed up by another culture which is quite different from what they have been used to, and which is considered by them not at all suitable to their society”, he held.

Advancement”, he continued, “comes to a people when they see something better than what they have. It comes from a process of assimilation of a higher culture, higher mode of thinking and not by force …. The tribal people know that their own village councils and justice systems are better suited to them, as compared to what they experienced in the plains. The provisions of the Sixth Schedule allow self government according to the culture and genius of the tribal communities while joining them to the rest of the Province. Being a frontier area you must keep people in a satisfied condition…If you want to win them over for the good of India you will have to create a feeling of friendliness and unity among them so they feel that their culture and way of life have not been abolished and another kind of culture thrust upon them by force.”

Bartering away our rights:

The debates that shaped the Constitution of India today remain a powerful reminder of how hard won these rights were, how easily the capital we inherited can be bartered away by a younger generation— both tribal and non-tribal — who do not know their history, the struggle of their forefathers, their rights or the value of the word. Successive governments in Delhi have long attempted to erode these rights. The current BJP government aggressively abrogated special protection of Kashmir under Article 370 and 35A through an act of Parliament. With the Northeast, it is already happening quietly through negotiation with individuals, communities or State Assemblies where tribals themselves are bartering away their rights.

The 6th Schedule of the Constitution, applicable to the tribal areas of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram, provides for the creation of autonomous district councils. Even while they have attained statehood, the tribal people under these autonomous district councils can frame laws on land, public health, agriculture and other aspects of administration.

The states of Nagaland and Mizoram today have the highest levels of protection offered under the Indian Constitution. After decades of tenacious guerrilla war and bloodshed, Nagaland was given Article 371A (an outcome of the 16 Point Agreement of 1960). Naga society is still deeply divided over continuation of its struggle for an honourable settlement. The Mizos got 371G (through the Mizo Accord of 1986) and appear to be reconciled to resolving their differences within the Constitution of India. These provisions allow the Nagaland and Mizoram State Assemblies to make laws related to land, resources, political and cultural rights that are paramount, even prevailing over Acts of the Indian Parliament.

Amongst the NE states Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, though falling within the Article 371 series, have the weakest level of protection. In Arunachal, the Central Government has a strong hand in all decisions through the Governor, whose judgement can override that of the State Assembly. Subjected to a mix of laws under the Forest Act, Inner Line Permit and Panchayat laws, Arunachal is covered by Article 371H of the Constitution. The demand for 6th Schedule protection and strengthening of 371H was made in 2020 by the BJP government in Arunachal, but has not been met. Large scale displacement from large dam projects brought the realisation that existing laws give them no control of their land and resources, leading to conflict.

Similarly Manipur, where the hill areas dominated by tribal groups are covered under the weaker provisions of article 371-C, pertaining to their culture, custom and land rights. Here too, there has been intense conflict over land alienation and development neglect with successive Manipur governments. The hill areas were brought under the administration of Autonomous District Councils, a parallel to the Panchayati Raj system, created in 1973, but the tribal people complain that there has been no meaningful devolution of power which is still controlled by the plains people in the Manipur Valley. Hence here too, the demand for Sixth Schedule status.

These Constitutional provisions have not been fool proof. Undermining these protections were the ruling elites, politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom are tribal themselves, as also the non-tribal. While a history of domination and exploitation led to the breakup of the Assam Province causing the hill tribals to chart their own separate course, the same story has also continued under tribal self-rule to some extent today.

Even in Nagaland with the highest level of protection, the State Assembly provides several instances of misuse or manipulation says lawyer Neiteo Koza. This was evident for instance, in the issue of 33 per cent Reservation for Women in Urban Bodies or the case of oil and natural gas exploration. In both instances the State Assembly failed to act upon its rights, giving in to pressures exerted by pressure lobbies from within Naga society as in the first case, and from the Centre, in the latter instance. Meanwhile, there are Nagas who complain that the upper hand given to Naga communities over land ownership rights has at times led to development project being stalled because of blockage or high demand for compensation.

However, despite the many limitations over interpretation of the laws or its dilution, these special Constitutional protections have so far held in the NE and given the tribal people rights that no other Indian state enjoys. Today, after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in Kashmir, the leaders of Kashmir Valley and also Ladakh are examining whether a possible solution to their crisis could lie in seeking provisions similar to Nagaland and Mizoram. At stake in this process is the value of the word — the commitment we Indians made as a nation in the country’s Constitution to our minority groups. The maturity of India’s democracy will be judged by the way we honour that commitment made by our founding fathers.

While there are many urgent issues that occupy the Northeast mind today — such as the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, access to justice for victims of State human rights violations, the fight against illegal detention camps and Citizenship Amendment Act, being some key concerns — it should not divert citizen attention from its united response to the unfolding ‘development’ plans. The community ownership of land and its resources, their right to determine its use are still Constitutional rights that are to be protected and fought for at all cost. Communities acting in cohesion hold the key.



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Rupa Chinai Written by:

Rupa Chinai is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has been writing on health and development issues for the past 25 years and her work has appeared in some of India's leading English language daily newspapers and websites as well as foreign publications.

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