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Midweek Review

A Medic woos Sarasvat



Book Review:

Book: Ruptures in Sri Lanka’s Education: Genesis, Present Status and Reflections.


Panduka Karunanayake.

Published by Sarasavi Publishers. Available for online purchase at


by Usvatte-aratchi


Professor Panduka Karunanayake of the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo has issued a very welcome book: mostly a collection of essays and notes he wrote to newspapers and two public lectures. They cover huge areas of social policy and therefore are very likely to give rise to public debate, all very welcome.

Panduka (if he will pardon me) belongs in a tradition of medical personnel who have interested themselves in problems in this society, well beyond health and medical care. Gunadasa Amarasekera, a dental surgeon, is the grand master of them all. He contributed innovation in Sinhala fiction and poetry and more recently has been very articulate about public policy on a large number of issues. Carlo Fonseka was a superb academic leader, a fine teacher of Physiology, a public intellectual of the first order who was a member of the LSSP all his adult life, a rationalist who did much to dispel superstition, a lyricist, a connoisseur and patron of the arts and a debater par excellence in print. S.N. Arsecularatne, a distinguished member of the Peradeniya Faculty who cultivated many interests, addressed a narrower audience on the growth of knowledge. Susirith Mendis, another highly distinguished teacher of Physiology, brought new perspectives to bear on whatever social phenomena he examined. S. Amaratunge, an outstanding oral surgeon, has taken up many issues. More recently, Upul Wijayawardhana an eminent cardiologist, Sarath Gamini de Silva an eminent physician and B.J.C Perera a distinguished paediatrician have begun to comment on features in our society. Occasionally A.H. Sheriffdeen, an eminent surgeon, also contributed. Panduka Karunanayake joins that brilliant galaxy not too far away from earth, that has shed much light on murky areas in our society. His main area is education, especially university education. Sarasvati is the goddess of knowledge in the Hindu pantheon, and some of us prefer to signify a university in Sinhala as sarasaviya.

I have lived through the entire process which Panduka writes about. I was educated with taxpayers’ money, all the way. They were central schools for a long time. (Central college is a foolish affectation, following the names of the denominational schools that copied the nomenclature from Public Schools in England.) The most valuable assets of central schools were their teachers, especially principals. From Sumanasuriya in Wanduramba, Devendra in Hikkaduwa, Jayasuriya in Matugama, Jayatilleke in Ibbagamuva, Eratna in Anuradhapura to Ekanayake and Wilmot de Silva in Pelmadulla, they showed a commitment, enterprise and initiative that now seem impossible. (Old-timers still reminisce Jayatilleke together with parents clearing the jungle in the school yard.) They in turn collected staff of teachers that now seem to have come from another world.

Apart from outstanding teachers, central schools in those early years had little to commend themselves. Choices were limited: no Mathematics, no Science, no Pali, no Sanskrt, no Greek, no Latin and many others. Silva, the Director of Education, reported that in 1948, 17,000 persons applied for positions as English teachers but not even 1,700 were found competent. That rueful trend continues to date. Facilities were woefully limited: no libraries, no laboratories and no playgrounds. Yet those principals, teachers and students worked wonders. Parents were too ill-informed to instruct either their offspring or, of course, teachers.

It is good to recall that teachers, especially in the English medium, were then paid about four times the GDP per capita. The foolish policy of governments to pay teachers no higher than the average per capita income as now has destroyed the elan of the corpus of principals and teachers. That is a consequence of the massification of secondary education that has cost us dearly, which Panduka speaks of. Costs of inevitable massification have to be counted when one sings of its benefits.

It is useful to recall that secondary education was massified in the US around 1900, after its economy became the leading economy in the world. If you compare internationally, countries that pay their schoolteachers decent wages (Finland, Sweden, Denmark and France) have excellent school systems. High wages paid to schoolteachers in Africa are scarcity rent and will be whittled away in time. Secondary school systems in the US too have been destroyed by low wages paid to teachers.

The nature of secondary and university education has undergone much change all over the world during the last 50 years. And the essential quality of such education is flexibility rather than fixity for long. If you read the advertisements put out by tuition masters selling their skills on television now, you will be struck by the wide spectrum of vocational courses that children follow from grade 10 to 13 in school – the last four years in school. They expect to be selected to universities for the study of these courses and to pursue careers in them. These courses are very different from what bright students went through a mere 50 years back, when my age cohort left university. To mourn over a system of education that one benefited from but is now shunned by students and parents alike is futile. The ideals espoused by Cardinal Newman and admired for long have had to be discarded in the midst of rapidly changing economic factors. Universities are more the handmaidens of industry than ever. This book invites the reader to debate these questions rather than accept dicta laid down by men in power but with little authority.

Panduka presses the policies he talks about through three sieves: equality of opportunity, equality of outcome and quality of outcome. He is also concerned with whether education is provided by the public or the private sector and with university freedoms. He explores, to some distance, the function of universities in society. However, the book is organized on different axis (especially his attempt at periodization), making the task of a reviewer that much harder and I will lose some valuable insights he develops.


Let us take the Kannangara reforms as an effort at promoting equality of opportunities. Compared to what prevailed prior to that, it was a distinctly successful attempt to greater equality of opportunity. In 1974 I published a paper comparing the economic and social background of university entrants in 1967-68 with those in 1950 (Strauss). The effect of Kannangara reforms in spreading opportunities to enter university were much in evidence in 1967-68.

It is important to keep in mind that their effects were compounded with the change in the medium of instruction into Sinhala/Tamil. The latter was far more powerful than the reforms. Sometime in 1967, I went with G.P. Malalasekera, then Chairman of the National Council of Education, to discuss with Minister Iriyagolla the problems that arose with teaching in Sinhala in universities. When the question of admission of students who had little knowledge of English came up, the inister was quite straightforward: “I cannot go to Meegahakotuva and tell the people there that their children who had been taught for 12 years in Sinhala, in government schools, now could not go to university unless they had a knowledge of English”.

At the same time, the rising proportion of a larger number of children in an increasing population compounded the problems of providing good university education.

Government had been heedless, and neglected thinking about these problems and considered the creation of two new universities sufficient to solve the problems. (Jennings did not see that what he accomplished in Peradeniya was utterly inadequate to meet with the demographic changes that were manifestly evident at the 1946 Census and the 1952 Census.) Some academics, in their zeal for the promotion of indigenous languages, also misled the politicians.

The consequences were a fall in the quality of education, especially in social studies and languages. Mathematics and Science could muddle through. Engineering and Medicine continued regardless. Good university teachers do not come about with the same speed as governments change their policies, and the scarcity of competent teachers stood in the way of providing high quality education. The present government with ambitious programmes for expanding university education had better look sharp. There was a clash with the ideals of promoting equality of opportunities and the maintaining of high quality university education.

Recent research has made it abundantly clear that whatever the positive steps that governments take to reduce inequality in opportunities, family culture plays a major part in the outcome. The outstanding evidence in Lanka is the scarcity of entrants to universities from homes of people who work in tea plantations and live in ‘lines’. In Allahabad, in a faculty strength of 112 teachers, 76% were Brahmin and Kayastha, when their proportion in the total population of Uttar Pradesh was 20%. In US, SAT scores are persistently in this order of excellence from the least to the highest: Blacks, Latinos, Whites and Asians. It is shocking to most people that Black people who have for generations lived as free men in that country continue to stand disadvantaged in the ladder of scores in test scores. The explanation is mostly in the poverty of home culture, as is the case in India, where the relevant categories are Dalits and Brahmins and others superior castes.

In Sri Lanka in 2019, of some 10,000 government schools, only 1,000 were classified as 1AB schools and had classes teaching up to grade 13 with facilities for teaching Science and Technology. In contrast, there were 1,900 1C schools teaching up to Grade 13 in Arts and Commerce. In the rest, or 2 out of every 3 schools, there were no facilities for teaching beyond Grade 11. In contrast, 2 out of every 3 teachers were in the other one-third of schools (1AB+1C). Inequalities in opportunities are written into the structure of schools. It is not the preferences of parents and students that sends hoards of students to study languages and social studies. Governments have programmed supply lines to do so. No amount of fidgeting at the apex will modify that foundation of the pyramid.

Private tuition follows roughly the same pattern. Private tuition, on which Panduka comments, is not something peculiar to Sri Lanka. In Britain, in 2019, 25% of children aged 11-16 years received some kind of private teaching outside schools. In China, parents spent over $10,000 per term to coach children for the university entrance examination; New Oriental and TAL Education are two of the biggest education companies in China. From Juku in Japan to large corporations in California, it is common flora in the jungle of these plants. In China, ‘princes’ (offspring of the privileged) end up learning in Ivy League colleges, with children of common people unable to send their offspring to a city school in China, because they do not have a hou kou to live in that neighbourhood. Finding solutions to problem of substantially reducing inequality in opportunities for higher education is going to be a hard nut to crack.

I will comment, even if briefly, on the problems in dealing with political interference in education. With government paying for all university education, it is inevitable that there will be political interference with matters of university education. All state, city and community colleges and universities in the US are maintained mostly with government funds. Most great universities in Germany and France are owned and paid for by the state. There have been many reports on the abuse of power over universities by States in India.

Governments do interfere in university life, but whether such intervention is beneficial or not depends on the degree of enlightenment among those running government. Recall the great Wilhelm von Humboldt of Prussia and Mori Arinori of Japan – both ministers of government and founders of great universities. Learning and reading that do not run beyond a capacity to read a teleprompter is not likely to be sufficient to nurse universities to excellence. While governments ambitiously interfere in running universities, their incapacity to eliminate rapacious ragging in our universities is outrageous.

There is another kind of interference in the work of universities: obstructing independent inquiry. Such interference comes from both governments and large corporations who determine the programmes of research which they espouse. We know from experience that knowledge grows best when exposed to free examination. Consequently, all measures taken by governments to curb free inquiry in universities are to be deplored as unhealthy.

I have exhausted my ration of words to review Professor Karunanayake’s book. Yet there are three other main issues that he explores which I have not touched: employability of the output of the system, the functioning of a parallel private sector in education and the clash of elites’ interests.

Professor Karunanayake’s arguments are sound and fortuitously timely. The Minister of Education announced some time back that the government would reconsider the entire design and content of education. It is your function to contribute to those mighty tasks. Professor Karunanayake’s book helps.

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Midweek Review

Crossmatch: A moral mirror



by Santhushya Fernando

Blossoming somewhere between a Chinaman and a Jam Fruit Tree is a Lotus. An unusual place to bloom, but there it is, anyway, Crossmatch. Crossmatch is Carmel Miranda’s debut novel that won the Gratiaen Prize 2020. Here’s what isn’t there in Crossmatch: steamy sex, profanity, harsh political commentary, preaching, flowery similes, structured ‘tools of literary writing’, boring descriptions. Probably uninfected by formal literary training, Miranda writes a provocative story with the acumen of a skillful doctor documenting on a patient’s bedhead ticket with some hardcore suspense thrown in. Crossmatch, for its entire 261 pages is captivating in its heart race potential.

Is she for real?

About 20 pages into Crossmatch, I phoned a senior friend who has spent the better part of his life at the Faculty of Medicine and the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL). “Seriously, you had a colleague called Dr Carmel Miranda? She writes like a hawk observing it all- is this a real name?” He’s was entertained, and replied “Carmel Miranda is for real. She spoke very little, did very much. Never spoke an unnecessary word: serious, committed, all about the patient, precise, not attention seeking, you know, the kind of person you miss when they are not there”. Oh, so I figure. Like Lotus. In Crossmatch.

The plot

Lotus, the protagonist is a third year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. She’s requested to pay a social visit to a hospitalised patient by her aunt, as all aunts of all medical students do. Like all medical students up to their eyes in real or imaginary stress, Lotus, grudgingly obliges visiting Anil Kumara only to find him dead. Events take Lotus to Lionel, the NHSL mortuary attendant with one glass eye, who convinces her to safe keep the dead boy’s mobile phone wrapped in a newspaper. Something about the numbers in the phone that includes the namesake Lotus Hospital, the NHSL ENT unit number and the contents of the newspaper drives Lotus to dig in deep. She uncovers, quite accidentally, the dangerous underbelly of organ trafficking mafia, poverty, inequality and the heart wrenching plight of the poor in our so called free healthcare system. Was it an accident that killed Anil? If not, who then is the killer? Finally Lotus finds answers and also confronts a devastating personal truth about her umbilical linkage to the Lotus Hospital. Even at the helm of her shatter, Lotus retains her characteristic objectivity and dignity. Throughout Crossmatch Miranda displays a true gift at maintaining the fidelity to her characterisation in personality, lingo, and mannerism.

The moral mirror

If you have read the captivating Gratiaen winner Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, you would know that one need not be a cricket fan to fall in love with that book. Miranda shows similar skill and humility in telling a “medical story” without medical jargon interfering with storytelling. She has labored well to tell a story about the holes of a medical system in effortless lay language. Never does she matronizingly “explain” medical terms down to the reader, weaving it all in, silkily.

Miranda holds a moral mirror on to our conscience with Crossmatch. It’s a grand mirror with one in center in front of which the reader is stands. That mirror is hinged with two mirrors on the side: the moral mirror of medical education and the moral mirror of medical practice. Both the hinged mirrors reflect unto the main mirror creating an ‘n’ number of reflections.

The moral mirror of medical education in Crossmatch touch on teaching via humiliation, linguism, unjust hierarchies, lack of cohesion in medical education, doctors past their medical fitness ‘expiry date’ continuing to practice medicine. But the beauty of Miranda’s moral mirror is that it does not discuss this in a malicious spirit. All is written with astounding tenderness and sensitivity towards human fallibility. It’s a mirror that every teacher must consider standing before.

The more serious moral mirror in Crossmatch is the territory that few would dare to tread: the kidney mafia, organ trafficking, bending the law, exploitation of the poor in kidney transplantation, lack of a transparent registry for organ donation, the legal and moral dilemma of compensation for organ donation. Importantly, this moral mirror in Crossmatch shines blindingly in our eye asking us questions: do you know what it means to be poor? The desolation beneath the label of poor? How many times do the rich donate kidneys to the poor? Is there ever a free lunch at a private hospital?

Our collective crime: poverty

Miranda reflects the moral mirrors on us for the sole purpose of telling her story. Her tender observations about how people live, talk, move, rationalize, love and sacrifice are all for the purpose of storytelling. Her power of observation is consistent across the slums of Wanathamulla to the bungalows down Rosmead place. After reading Crossmatch you cannot afford to be Sri Lankan and be divorced from the collective social crime called poverty that we all contribute to, by commission or omission. For poverty is the one crime that has the direct or indirect consent of society. The crisp humorful language, sharp precise observation, humane narration without judgment- all these make it a good read. Noteworthy is Miranda’s security as a writer who doesn’t feel the need to climb on top of her story.

Perhaps the only anti-climax of Crossmatch is its epilogue. In an uncharacteristic bout of a need to tie up too many ends, Miranda writes an epilogue reminiscent of last minute commentary over movie credits in a Hollywood or Bollywood movie stating how each character ended up happily. The last line of the main novel (prior to epilogue) “But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming “is disappointing and reminiscent more of a line out of a Hallmark card. Miranda could have written a killer last line. The epilogue takes her matter of fact story telling a bit too far and negotiates a mediocre “happily ever after” to a thought provoking , disturbing story meant to induce a bit of reader- insomnia.

Yes, Crossmatch makes us stand in front of a difficult moral mirror.

To Carmel Miranda I say: “You. Go. Girl!!!!”

(Dr Santhushya Fernando is a senior lecturer in Medical Humanities at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo)


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Midweek Review

Proposed Plantation University and its economic benefits



by Dr L M K Tillekeratne
Former Director of the RRI and UNIDO consultant in Rubber Processing

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address to the nation made an emphatic reference to the establishment of a Plantation University by amalgamating all major crop research institutes, such as Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI), Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). Of these four research institutes, two were established by British rulers over a century ago. The core mandate of the research institutes was to develop the respective agricultural crops, as the plantation crops generated the highest amount of foreign exchange for almost four decades.

With the advent of the free market economy in late 1970s, though the remittances from migrant workers and revenue from the garment industry surpassed the foreign exchange earnings of the plantation sector, the plantation industry continues to play a dominant role in terms of foreign exchange and employment.

Hence, the President’s thinking that the creation of a national university exclusive for the plantation sector is a far-reaching vision that could transform the plantation sector by increasing land productivity and by developing the value-added products manufacture particularly in the case of rubber that the country desperately needed at this juncture. In this context, that the article written by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe, Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant in a leading English newspaper was a comprehensive analysis of the justification of the creation of a national university for the plantation sector. Such an incisive analysis should have come from a scientist initially.

Dearth of Scientists in the Research Institutes

I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ranasinghe on his assertion that research institutes are functioning today in isolation without trained staff to carry out research projects. As he has very correctly identified the dearth of scientists of all the research institutes has hampered the research programmes, and that in turn has led to the deterioration of the productivity of all the sectors during the last two decades. Thus, bringing all the scientists and resources under one umbrella is the need of the hour and that could be accomplished relatively at a short time by establishing an exclusive university for the plantation sector.

The President’s far-reaching vision will be a turning point in producing scientists to run the plantation industry. At a time when most of the other countries in Asia and Africa are increasing their productivity levels of the plantation crops, it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is far behind in terms of research during last two decades, though its Tea and Rubber research institutes are internationally known.

Downfall of the Rubber Industry

It is sad that in Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to have a rubber plantation established outside Brazil and distributed planting material to other countries mainly in Asia to grow rubber, rubber production has plummeted significantly for the last 25 years. The countries that learnt rubber planting technology from the scientists of Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, have already been able to overtake us both in terms of production and land productivity over the past two decades pushing Sri Lanka down to the 12th place as a NR producer at present. I strongly believe that the situation regarding tea is either the same or even worse.

As Ranasinghe has correctly pointed out in his article, our productivity has fallen to 50% of what we produced a decade ago while countries like Myanmar and Cambodia have been able to double their annual production during this period.

Dearth of Plantation Technologists

It is true that we have agricultural universities producing agriculture graduates. But they do not specifically focus on crops like Tea and Rubber, and cannot undertake the task of increasing productivity by means of applying new technology introduced regularly to overcome issues related to agronomy and tapping. Fresh Agriculture and Science graduates who joined the plantation sector lack the skills and knowledge the plantation industry demands and this mismatch has resulted in a shortage of plantation technologists with required competency levels.

Distinctive Advantages of Plantation University

The agricultural graduates of Sri Lankan universities, however, would be in a very authoritative position in that they can cover a wide variety of other crops better than the graduates getting their agricultural degrees overseas. Agriculture and science graduates should necessarily possess the required field exposure and experience to find gainful employment in plantation sector. Hence, fresh graduates who join the plantation sector will have to work for at least 10 years to be an expert who can identify problems and sort them out on them individually. The industry can ill-afford to wait for such a long period to produce talented plantation expert or qualified scientists, given the dearth of scientists in the country. As Ranasinghe has correctly mentioned, there is a severe shortage of scientists virtually in all departments of research institutes to tackle problems in the industry, which will badly affect the research institutes, if the present system is allowed to continue. More than 50% of the raw rubber and latex end products industry is imported at competitive prices. The coconut production is sufficient for the local consumption and there is no surplus for export in the form of oil or DC.

Exodus of Research Scientists to join Universities

Most of the scientists trained for special mandates in the research institutes have already joined the national universities purely due to better salaries and perks. However, according to the situation existed in early 1960s, those who joined research institutes for developing the agriculture sector were paid higher salaries than those who joined universities, considering their contribution to the development of the economy and the difficult conditions under which they work in remote areas.

Hence, the science graduates’ first choice was research institutions. Today, it is the other way around, and only those who cannot find employment in universities and with low merits join research institutes to get post graduate training utilising the limited number of foreign training scholarships offered to research institutes and get qualified to join universities. Empirical studies have shown that trained researchers with special skills to tackle problems in the plantations have become misfits as academics.

Ad hoc recruitment criteria

The situation that existed prior to the late 1980s was totally different even with regard to recruitment criteria. It is due to the shortage of graduates produced by local universities due to closure of the university education for almost three years, due to the insurrection. There was a severe shortage of special degree holders and hence a decision was taken by the government to allow general degree holders in places where previously only special degree graduates with a class were recruited as research assistants in research institutes. Since then the quality of research produced by the research institutes has suffered.

The distinctive benefit in the President’s proposal is that in the future we might be able to produce graduates capable of tackling problems in the plantation sector with their adequate field exposure and hands on experience during their undergraduate studies.

In addition, there will be a good opportunity for institutions like TRI and RRI with international reputation to attract foreign students for training in Sri lanka thereby earning additional revenue to the country as the UK, India and Malaysia do even without having such recognition. If the proposed national plantation university is properly run, it will be quite possible for them to sustain adequate revenue from foreign students without depending purely on annual Treasury grant. Even now trainees from countries like Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and even from Malaysia have got their research assistants trained at these two crop institutes under international grants.

Contribution to the national economy by way of enhanced production

On a hypothetical basis, if the production of rubber in the country is increased to 135,000 Mt, which was the amount produced years ago, purely by increasing the land productivity, without even increasing the planted area, the country can reap maximum benefits from the fast-increasing rubber prices in the world market. Rubber was selling at around Rs 100 to 150 per kg during the last half a decade. Surprisingly, it has gone up to almost Rs 450 per kg now and the situation is expected to increase further with time to come owing to the demand for NR on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the production is increased to 135,000 Mt, additional revenue the country can enjoy would be (Rs 450 x 50000 x1000) Rs 22.5 billion annually.

We should not lose sight of the fact that due to the shortfall in the supply of rubber, a considerable amount of NR and latex is imported by our rubber products manufacturers for value added products manufacture at a cost of over Rs 30 billion.

If this extra production is used to produce goods such as surgical/examination gloves for which the demand is fast increasing due to Covid-19 spread, the additional revenue country can gain is over 200%. It will be possible to create more employment opportunities as well.

Arduous task for the new Minister

The task before Economic Development Minister is to consider how best to improve the economy in bad state. This objective can be achieved in less than a year by getting the neglected rubber farms into tapping and by using techniques like lightly stimulated low frequency tapping and by utilising proven new techniques like rain guards to minimise crop losses due to rain. The additional cost involvement for these developments is insignificant and the time taken is less than a year.

New planting and replanting are two other ways of increasing the crop; they are costly and take nearly a decade to give a reasonable crop increase. Further, there is no guarantee that the improved rubber prices will remain high until then. However, replanting, and new planting should be continued according to the RDD targets.

Another factor that caused a drop in the rubber production was the removal of the extension services from the research wing and its attachment to the subsidiary function of the Rubber Development Department owing to an illogical decision taken by the then government almost 25 years ago. Today, the RDD is functioning in isolation ignoring the recommendations of the RRI. This has been the main cause for the drop in productivity of rubber farms in Sri Lanka. For example, the population of low yielding clones like PB 86 are still distributed and the clone population in the country is an utter mess.

Undoubtedly, everyone looks forward to the establishment of the plantation university.

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Midweek Review

“Madam” and her Wards



By Lynn Ockersz

Six anxious, awkward teenage girls,

Are following their “Madam” close at heel,

To the rundown Spa hardly seen in the busy street,

But sought by restless men when darkness sets in,

But in the Isle fabled for its charity,

No one looks askance at this sight,

No one dare asks questions that matter;

Nor is accountability exacted from office holders;

But posers like the following may be asked,

By those who choose to care for the ‘nation’,

Now that Ishalini too has brought things into focus:

Isn’t this an induction into prostitution?

What lured the girls away from school,

And made them walk footloose on the streets?

Would the “Madam” be ever taken to task?

Or would she be allowed to go, with no questions asked,

When a swoop by the uniformed gentry,

Thrusts the girls into a police lockup,

And makes them wilt there sadly,

Though into primal youth they are about to bloom.

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