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for response

Presentation at the 1st National NGO / Alternative Publishers'
Conference organised by Books For Change, at Bangalore on November 27
and 28, 1998

By Jayesh Shah, member of the Humanist Movement and publisher of
Humanscape magazine, 11 Yogniti, 18 S V Road, Santacruz west, Mumbai
400054 Tel: 6106197, Email: humanscape@bitsmart.com

Conceptualising an Alternative Information Network

Good evening friends. Before developing the subject of today's

I would like to talk briefly about the present situation. In the present
time, globally, people are going through a major process of dissolution.
If it was only institutions that were being dissolved it wouldn't be a
serious matter, as they can be replaced with new institutions, new
systems. The point is that so mething in the heads of people is also
dissolving. In some cases, this dissolution is perhaps not affecting
people at the personal level. But human activity cannot be considered
only in personal terms. It should instead be understood in terms of
relations with the world and for the well being of the human being. Huge
structures that were standing tall until a few years ago have crumbled,
wh ile others show signs of becoming defunct in the near future. This is
not just happening in or to any particular country; it is happening
globally and in all fields -- in the polity, the economy, in education,
in labour, in religion etc.

We have to conceptualise alternative information networks keeping in
view this present situation. What is information? It is knowledge
derived from study, experience and instruction, of a particular
situation or event. Knowledge is information and understanding about a
subject, which is shared by all human beings.  However, in the present
times, inform ation is considered as a commodity/product that can be
traded, trade-marked, used against somebody, concealed, presented or
circulated in a fashion to protect the interests of a few,
manipulated/distorted to control others subjectivity, used as an instrum
ent for accumulation of capital and power, or used to help mechanisms of
control and surveillance of citizens. Information is no longer knowledge
that is shared freely and transparently. Maybe it is this that has
brought us here today to discuss an alternative information network.  I
don't expect the prevalent system to change its direction. The present
system of information is a problem.

We also need to reflect on how the existing alternatives treat
information in today's times. Do they also consider it as a commodity?
An alternative is that which exists outside the (conventional) system.
There can be an alternative plan, action, position or even network that
is different from the prevalent one. It can be an approach to a
situation or problem in a completely different way from the usual,
especially in a simpler, more natural or cheaper way. There are several
forms of alternative presentations produced. Among the popular ones in
print formats are periodicals like Economic and Political Weekly,
newsletters of several organisations and institutions, circulars for the
internal circulation of information, reports of several studies, videos
or documentaries for mass dissemination in electronic format etc. There
are also artistic productions like street plays for public
demonstrations etc. Also, workshops and various types of meetings are
produced for training and sharing of experiences. Many of them are
economical and produced in different languages. The question arises: do
they fulfill their purpose of networking? Are they effective enough to
convey the message, do they help people to reflect, do they transform
the situation? Or have they lost sight of the objectives with which
those initiatives were launched? Why has this happened? Is it because
the alternative itself started to resemble the face of the conventional
system, accepting the influence of dominating forces like
corporatisation, heavy funding or excessive use of technology? Have they
isolated themselves from grassroots needs?

A network is defined as a large number of people, groups, institutions
etc that have a connection with each other and work together as a
system. And, networking means making connections among people or groups
of a like kind. The examples we have are Bharat Jan Aandolan - a
conglomeration of small tribal organisations all over the country,
National Alliance of Peoples' Movement - an alliance of several peoples'
movements, etc. We also need to reflect whether we are building networks
among the same groups of the same few or have we really enlarged the
networks? Are the converted talking to the converted? Do these networks
remain merely contacts among like-minded people and as spaces for
meeting with the same people? Are we able to include within the network,
at all levels, at least those people for whose benefit we are,
supposedly, building these networks?  There are several issues for the
present alternative information network. We must also think about what
will happen after this conference. So let's speak about some alternative

The conceptualisation of an Alternative Information Network

What is the need for an Alternative Information Network? Simple. The
present system has failed us. How many of our friends not associated
with voluntary work have heard of the commendable work done by the
Swadhyaya movement? Or, for that matter, about the various activities
carried out in the tribal villages by Narmada Bachao Aandolan.
Mainstream media, with its myopic, profit-making vision has obscured all
that is so crucial to our lives. For example, there is enough and more
good and exemplary work done by several individuals and organisations,
and, in many cases, it is also documented. But does it get disseminated
widely; does it get talked about, written about enough?  Or does it
reach only those same few people time and again? Also, no one approach,
one organisation or one leader can be a reference point in today's
society. We need a large number of people and organisations engaged in
different fields to come together to form a network. So far,
historically, all movements, religions etc have been initiated by
individuals, well-meaning leaders. But those times, I think, are over.
The baton is now in our hands. What we need is collective effort. The
time to leave matters that concern the lives of millions in the hands of
a few is past. The time has come to take our lives, our destinies into
our own hands.

What should be the characteristics of an Alternative Information

(1) It should be a network that exists outside the present conventional

(2) It should be simple, more natural and cheap. However, its
presentation should be creative enough with mass appeal.

(3)  It should be open to all people without any discrimination. It
should create conditions for the participation and mobilisation of
different progressive forces, groups and individuals, without losing
their identity or particular characteristics.

(4) It should help people to gain knowledge through study, experience
and instruction, in areas of personal and social change. It should help
people develop knowledge beyond that accepted as absolute truth.

(5) It should be people-oriented and fulfill the real needs of people.

(6) It should promote the union of forces capable of exerting an
influence over vast sectors of the population, orienting social
transformation with its action.

(7) Its way of working should be decentralised, accountable and

(8) It should value freedom of thought and belief. It should respect

(9) It should actively denounce all forms of violence. Its methodology
of action should be non- violence.

(10) Lastly, it should be active, observant, vigilant, working towards
growing precision and be able to act with speed.

What could be the media for communication and points of dissemination
for an Alternative Information Network? We have to be creative and
artistic in developing such a network. It goes without saying that a
volunteer spirit is integral to the success of such a network. The
finest personification of voluntary networking I have seen is Sudhir
Goyal in Ujjain. Let me tell his story. He does not uses e-mail,
Internet, libraries, etc no nothing. So how does he do it? On the day I
met him, he was busy making preparations for our two-day workshop to be
held from the next day. He made it a point to welcome us at the station
at 7.30 in the morning. From then on as our host he never took leave of
us until late night and yet accomplished innumerable tasks both of the
daily office routine as well as in connection with the workshop. I would
like to outline some of the activities he carried out on this day.
Ujjain is renowned as a historic-city. He took us to several temples,
whilst we were busy paying our respects at the temples, he was busy
talking to people, talking to an aged woman and asking her about her
difficulties, to a temple pandit who approached requesting help
regarding some bureaucratic wrangle. Later he talked to a government
official and discusses on some vital issues. His openness makes him
known to most people in Ujjain from beggars to senior citizens. He is
revered by the deprived as he has many worthy actions in their cause. He
runs a school for deaf- and-dumb. He runs senior citizens' ashram in the
mould of Mother Teressa where in similar humanitarianism he shelters the
dispossessed, the abandoned, the terminal cases and the dying. The
ashram provides them food, medicines and shelter to ease out their final
days. Wherever he was he received an endless stream of messages - an
aged lady suddenly had to be admitted in the hospital. Meet the press at
2 pm etc. At the hospital while admitting his patient, he was approached
by the relatives of two unknown patients who pleaded with him for help
of medical treatment. He organised that. Meanwhile he received an urgent
message to visit the maternity hospital, on reaching this hospital he
was met by his Ashram staff who had accompanied a pregnant leper woman
in critical condition who required immediate admission. He organised
that. At the same time he was approached by the nurses of this
government maternity hospital who asked him to take charge of four new
born babies abandoned by their parents. He committed them that he will
do something in two days, since it required some official formality. We
were wonder- struck! This man is besetted with the problems of other
people and yet he emerges optimistic, building a chain of human
relations and contacts. Later, he took us to the senior citizens'
ashram, which is managed by him and introduced us to people staying in
the ashram.

He made about twenty telephone calls from ashram reminding people for
the workshop. While travelling during the day, he informed us about the
local political situation for the forthcoming legislative elections. In
the late evening he took us to his house, introduced to his family
members and invited us to have dinner. All this happened on the same
day. In brief, he was communicating various things to various people and
above all he was taking actions. That's the point. He talks and acts. I
state this example not to downplay the importance of other media. But
isn't it ironical that we have to talk about 'talking' as a creative
medium of communication? Even advertisers know of the power of

And for those who will question the power of this medium, let us remind
ourselves to the Ganpati-drinking-milk incident. Word got around all
over the world before any media could report it. So let's talk.
Communication is the first step. The point is that the communication has
to be sincere as if from heart to heart, positive, encouraging,
self-less. This is the part of new sensibility, the true alternative.
This change of intentions should also percolate all important media, if
we wish to reach all those people who aspire to do something for society
but do not know how to get informed.

The network should use different mediums of communication -- verbal,
print, electronic, etc.  It should disseminate information through
existing mass-media -- newspapers and TV channels, electronic and other
mailing lists, documentation and research centres, various types of
libraries, articles feature services for mainstream publications,
universities, student unions, labour unions, grassroots groups,
religious groups, journalists etc.
 There are more than 250 universities and several hundred thousands of
students, more than 250 daily publications and periodicals each with
more than 25,000 circulation and many of them with several editions,
there are hundreds of student and labour unions and over 110,000
subscribers to Internet in India. There are hundreds of documentation
centres and libraries. There are several thousands of
grassroots/voluntary groups active in various fields: culture,
education, health, labour etc. Can they be the nodal points of
dissemination? How do we do that? Simultaneously, it should organise
open platforms for joint exchanges and actions, hold lok adalats, carry
out signature drives or public referendums on vital policy matters,
demand decentralisation, transparency and accountability in public
affairs etc.

We have a very demonstrative example of Muzdoor Kisan Shakati
Sanghathana in Rajasthan who have been campaigning on the issue of
'Right to Information.' There are several examples of lok adalats. Are
people and organisations willing to come together on one platform for
joint action? It should be able to orient and plan grassroot, national
and international campaigns on issues that concern people. Will they be
able to demonstrate to the common people that change is possible?

All this calls for some brainstorming and translating ideas into an
action plan. What could be the tangible forms of communication,
dissemination and training for alternative information network? We could
use various print formats such as books, booklets, newsletters,
magazines, directories, articles / reports in mainstream publications,
exhibitions etc and electronic format such as video, audio-visuals, TV
programmes, Internet websites, etc. We could use different forms of arts
for communication, wider dissemination and emotional appeal such as
street theatre, poetry and other literary forms, various verbal means,
paintings, documentaries, etc. We could provide training in constructing
such networks by holding seminars, get-togethers, regular meetings and
workshops. We could prepare do-it-yourself manuals and circulars
providing clarification-cum-news. We could prepare databases of people
and organisations for maintaining contacts on a permanent basis.

A demonstrative example is the way CRY has built a network of donors and
buyers/supporters for its products for a cause, which ranges from
housewives to students to corporate sector. These databases have to
grow. These databases can be according to specific interest groups, for
example, people interested in health or education. These databases can
be used as postal mailing lists, electronic mailing lists or for
telephonic contacts. These databases are to be prepared with
decentralised means at the grassroots level where the action has to take

These human contacts at grassroots can become "boosters" of
dissemination of information and for joint action.

How and where will the Alternative Information Network function? The
idea is not to have another separate organisation. Instead, every
individual, organisation and group will have to Instead, every
individual, organisation and group will have to consider himself/itself
as an important component ready to be linked into a network, as an
important activity integral and not alien to its overall interests. I
hope I'm making myself very clear on this-the components of this network
already exist, and we are those components who have to fuse into
networks. There was no single organisation made for independence
movement. The existing organisations/groups can provide material and
financial support and facilitate the construction of the network
according to their abilities. This is the future--Common people coming
together in a joint effort to correct the present wrongs. The 'new
power' will be built from the social base, as a wide, decentralised,
federal movement with the participation of grassroots organisations and
people engaged in different fields. The emergence of the network will be
seen at the social base, from the bottom up. We will have to construct
several nodes (existing organisations, electronics etc) that gather and
in-turn disseminate information through "boosters" - the human contacts
around these nodes. We are referring to human communication - a verbal
communication. These nodes are to be constructed at all levels --
grassroots, city and national and its boosters will be the people.  We
need to put into motion a mechanism of co-ordination to ensure the
continuity of the network. It can begin by forming co-ordination teams
at city, state and national levels. These teams have the function to
co-ordinate, to facilitate networking, to give orientation/direction to
the network within the framework of its characteristics described, to
work towards its growth and continuity in time, to link different teams
vertically and horizontally. The team members do not have to become
leaders or bosses or representatives of somebody or control the network.
They would neither be elected nor nominated. They are a team of people
who have volunteered to fulfill the task. Respective teams with certain
numbers of people will fulfill various tasks. The team members share the
various functions and tasks. It would not be a full-time occupation for
all team members. The respective co-ordination teams may set-up centres
for their functioning depending on their resources. Such places can also
be offered by other local organisations.

On one hand I said, 'The idea is not to have another separate
organisation.' But everything I told in last four paragraphs appears to
be talking about building some organisation. Yes, I am referring to
human organisation, the human network and not about a rigid, tight,
institutionalised structure which in the present time get empty soon
after it is set-up. I propose human structures, which are flexible,
fluid, and open, fuelled by teamwork, driven by genuine interest, care
and concern.

At this moment I think of the magazine of which I am
publisher-Humanscape. It was initiated, as an alternative media, as a
pilot project, which is today supported by various individuals who in
the capacity of editors, writers, graphic artists, illustrators work
cooperativistically, in a team-- work which does not have an
institutionalised character. Neither are there full time staff members,
nor is there a funding agency for the magazine to stay afloat. It stays
afloat by the sheer grit and voluntary work (payments are honorariums)
of its editorial and publishing, distribution network. It has been
coming out regularly every month for the last five years.

How would the funds be generated and managed? We will have to be
creative in these matters. We will have to design self-financing
autonomous proposals. This requires more discussion. The network at all
levels should raise funds through internal resources of participants and
can not be funded by outside agency if it wishes to keep its hands free
from any bindings for its smooth working. The contributions raised
from/through participants can be divided among the base level, city
level and national level. The allocation of funds for expenses can be
decided jointly by team members. Which are the motivations for the

These motivations should not be influenced by external "authorities,"
but be reliant on the true experiences and aspirations of people. They
could be the following:

(1) Human intentions. To bring about positive change is a struggle among
human intentions. This is precisely what enables us to talk about
oppressors and the oppressed, about the just and the unjust, about
heroes and cowards. It is the only thing that enables one to practice
with meaning, social solidarity and a commitment to the liberation of
the discriminated, whether they be majorities or minorities.

(2) Human acts. The human acts that do not start and end in a vicious
circle of enclosure. Those that aspire to coherence, open up, widening
their influence towards people and environments, promoting not just a
conception of ideas, but rather, precise actions that increase freedom.

(3) It could be an emergence of a great movement for change, referencing
and agglutinating the most positive factors of society, representing
itself as a protagonist of the transformation process -- based on
humanist attitudes.

(4) It could be a human experience, a social experience and personal
experience launched towards overcoming present suffering and also to
prevent it in the future.

(5) It could be a social revolution that will drastically change the
living conditions of the people; or a political revolution that will
modify the power structure; and, in conclusion, a human revolution that
will create its own paradigms in place of the present decadent values.

(6) It could be a clarion call which by placing everything as a function
of health and education will give a correct framework to the utterly
complex political, cultural and economic problems of society.

(7) It could be a human rights struggle that leads to a questioning of
the powers-that-be, orienting action towards the substitution of these
with the powers of a new human society.

This is how a new sensibility can arise, a new meaning, a new way of
action, a new moral outlook and a new tactical disposition. hen is such
a network to be formed? It should be formed now, in this moment. This is
the need of the moment. This is a solution in front of the personal and
social crisis.

We can use this conference as an opportunity to create a new Alternative
Information Network or we may disperse without doing anything concrete.
I would like that we spend some time in giving a formal shape to the
network. We can form smaller groups and discuss the possibilities of
implementation. These groups could be according to geographical
divisions or otherwise. We can discuss and agree on some basic things.
These groups could share with each other the means to implement it. We
can form a co-ordination team, which will begin to develop such a
network. We can consider the people present here as well as those not
present here, with whom we would like to do discuss this matter further.
We can plan some channels of communication within the network and with
others. We can set our immediate priorities. We can agree on the
activities for the first three months. We can discuss how we plan to
generate resources - human, financial, technical etc. We can see the
possibilities of meeting again. We can prepare a calendar of activities.
So let's talk...Let's do it, do it now and do it all together. That's
all. Nothing more. Thank you all very much.

Strategy behind Humanscape

Humanscape is an alternative publication. I would like to quote from its
first editorial of November 1993... "Dear readers, Through Humanscape,
we want to promote a current of opinion formed by those who coincide on
one basic point -the individual- and focus on ways of making positive
changes in the individual and in society.  Our aspiration is that
individuals, institutions and society be informed of humanist proposals,
so that they decide whether or not it is possible to share them.  For
this, Humanscape will openly diffuse ideas and facts, encouraging their
discussion. It will also promote active participation in existing
organizations and (why not?) the creation of new ones in order to
translate humanist views into every possible field of action. Humanscape
will publish articles on all kinds of issues and subjects, always from a
humanist point of view.  Be it politics, economy, sports, art,
literature, cinema, foreign affairs, fashion, etc., our magazine will
not only report the news, but take a clear stand on the relevant issue.
In other words, Humanscape will let readers know what humanists have to
say regarding issues in the public domain.  In this sense, we clearly
forego the usual pretense of providing "objective" information.

We think that information - in its selection and presentation - always
presupposes a viewpoint, a "filter," whether it is explicit or implicit.  
Ours is explicit, and it will provide Humanscape with a guiding thread -
a humanist stance.  Nowadays, it is not unusual to find inconsistent
views in the same publication. Humanist individuals and organizations
continuously produce good news. For instance, literacy and
blood-donation campaigns, fund-raising for good causes, all sorts of
cooperative actions, environmental defense, consciousness-raising
drives, relief actions in case of calamities, etc. Thousands of people,
who do not know one another, make their daily humanist contribution in
the pages of newspapers, from colleges, in business companies, within
existing organizations and institutions.  This happens at the city,
country and international levels. It is a large and widespread legion of
selfless and committed volunteers, mostly unaware of their enormous
potential for change if they only acted jointly.  It is worthwhile to
diffuse this moral force, news that seldom gets published or is often
given only cursory notice. In this sense, we want to establish bridges
of communication between all these individuals and organizations.
Generally, we are referring to organizations and individuals working in
the fields of social work, ecology, education, charity, culture, etc.
This may help in forming a network to help co-ordinate the activities of
all selfless people.  We will encourage them to send us their news
regularly, and -if possible- to get in touch personally. People will now
be able to count on one more positive point of reference in these
difficult times...."

I would like to analyse how Humanscape fulfilled those aspirations in
last five years starting from its first issue: ? Its first article in
November 1993 opened the debate on 'political accountability,' which
subsequently triggered off debate on the subject. It led to several
campaigns on political transparency and accountability, carried out by
several groups, and several mainstream newspapers began to talk about it
in last few years.  In subsequent issues of Humanscape, it has raised
debates on accountability in the medical profession, on Women's Policy
of Maharashtra, on what is development work, on animal rights, on 'What
does it mean to be Indian today?', on Right To Information, on Consumer
Protection Act, on drug policy, on population growth, on rights of
slum-dwellers, on exploitation of children as labourers, etc. ? It has
covered issues of the public domain like 'effects of globalisation and
free market', tribals' rights, secularism, formal democracy, cost of
consumerism, disemployment and new economic policy, ecological
degradation and poverty, voluntary euthanasia, mainstream- media
malaise, atrocities against 'criminal' tribes, globalisation and media,
education as a profit-making industry, TADA victims, construction
workers, female infanticide, rehabilitation after earthquake at Latur,
street-children and child labour, forced development on tribals,
violence against women, sex-workers, unorganised sector labour, health
hazards faced by industrial workers, rights of fishermen, paedophilic
commerce, old-age, women panchayats, panchayati raj, child abuse and
tourism, landless labourers, children and medical dosages, on man-made
calamities at Kutch, on psychological depression, on myths of HIV etc. ?
It has supported campaigns against child labour, in favour of local
self-government, against malfunctioning of medical council, against
environmental hazardous by industries like Du Pont nylon plant in Goa,
Dabhol Power Corporation and Enron, of public interest litigation
against fraudulent marriages, on the neglect of health, education and
quality of life by government etc. ?

Over the last 61 issues it has profiled demonstrative humanitarian and
humanist activities of more than 400 organisations for bringing positive
changes in society in different ways. These organisations have done good
and positive work in various fields like education, health, environment,
literacy, self-dependence by rural people, right to information, against
the girl child prostitution, specific illness-affected people like
leprosy, old-age people homes, child adoption, gender justices, crafts,
local self-government, local gram sabha, rehabilitation of effected
people due to natural calamities, juvenile homes, organic farming,
addictions etc.  ?

It has told stories of and interviewed those who have demonstrated
positive work in different fields. For example: Anna Hazare for his work
in the field of sustainable development, Bhaskar Save for his work in
organic farming, P Sainath for his reportage on the ten poorest
districts of India, Usha Mehta as Gandhian, Medha Patkar for the
resistance against Sardar Sarovar Project in favour of displaced people,
Swamy Agnivesh for the struggle of bonded labour, Sunderlal Bahuguna --
a true Gandhian, Bhanwari Devi, Sanjoy Ghose for his work at Majuli,
Assam, Hari Dev Shourie for his work against injustice and corruption in
public life, Avinash Dharmadhikari an ex-bureaucrat who has started an
education movement, Jayaprakash Narayan an ex-bureaucrat working towards
building a national platform of committed citizens, Pandurang Shastri
Athavale a founder of Swadhyaya movement, Dr N H Antia a crusader in
public health, Shankar Guha Niyogi a leader of the exploited workers of
Chattisgarh and several others. ?

It has analysed reports of various fact-finding teams, for examples, to
investigate the lives of women in Kashmir, to investigate custody
deaths, etc. ? It has reviewed books having social, political and
economic implications and published essays on the personal and social
crisis, on voluntary spirit, on humanism in different cultures and
traditions, on ethical issues etc. ? It has brought out special issues
on art and culture, on women's movement in India, on education, on
media, on medical ethics, on political accountability, on labour, on
technology and science, on popular culture, on ethical development (in
personal life, education, legal, health, business, politics,
administration, media, environment, culture), on globalisation, on
nuclear nightmares, on non-formal education etc. ? Its human index page
provides unique information in single sentences.

Humanscape is a low-budget monthly magazine, published by Foundation for
Humanization, a registered public trust. It is being published since the
last five years (61 issues) without any gap. It has not grown in
circulation of copies but has produced an impact with a circulation of
3,000 copies. Its readership is difficult to estimate. It has been an
important tool for networking with and among NGOs, peoples' movements,
universities, grassroots groups, mainstream publications, journalists,
academicians, writers, artists, bureaucrats and above all - individuals
-- striving for the better living conditions for human beings. In the
last five years the Foundation has networked with over 6,000 people and
organisations in over 500 cities and towns, of which its team members
have met over 2,000 people personally. It has also worked jointly on
vital issues with some of these organisations and individuals. It has
organised several workshops with practices on personal change and social
change. It has been financially self-managed through the support of its
subscribers, advertisers and well wishers. It is not funded by any
funding agency. It has created its own resources. It can be financially
autonomous with 5,000 subscribers' base. It does not have any full-time
staff. Its team works on a freelance/part-time basis. This has not
reduced accountability among team-members; rather they consider it as
their own project. It is published with the collaboration of several
people. Its team of writers comprises of more than 300 journalists,
academicians, columnists, and social activists from different parts of

The honorary editorial board in its capacity as advisors provides
valuable suggestions and contacts. It comprise of Nissim Ezekiel --
poet, Linesh Sheth - member of the Humanist Movement, Govind Shahani -
academician, Manu Kothari - cancer specialist, Bittu Sahgal -
environmentalist, Rusi Engineer - psychoanalyst, Raju Moray - lawyer,
Makarand Paranjape - writer and academician, Amar Jesani - health
researcher and activist and Siddhartha - writer. Its team comprises of
Hutokshi Doctor who is the editor; Mahesh Ramchandani, asst. editor;
Aruna Desai, data operator; Ramkrishna Salvi, layout artist; Pavan
Shapamohan and Farzana, illustrators; Jayant Gala, printer and Jayesh
Shah, publisher. It receives support for photographs from various NGOs,
photographers, photo libraries of publications and photo agencies.

Humanscape, 11Yogniti, 18 S V Road, Santacruz West, Mumbai 400054, Tel:
6106197, Email: humanscape@bitsmart.com

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