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Bird watching at a tank

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by Athula Dissanayake

Way back in the mid 1970’s, I was still a schoolboy and had just started a new hobby, namely bird watching. Schooling in Colombo did not provide much opportunity for bird watching and therefore it was with much delight that I accepted the invitation of my aunt and uncle to spend the school holidays at their home in Kurunegala.

Their house, situated at Kaudawatte in a rural setting amidst paddy fields, coconut plantations and scrubland, was a haven for me as it provided ample opportunity to pursue my new hobby. Most of the birds I came across there were new to me. Eventually it became a habit with me to spend one or two weeks at their home during school holidays, and they always welcomed me with open arms.

My bird list grew rapidly and soon I was able to register my hundredth bird very proudly. It happened to be the Ceylon lorikeet, which was calling loudly on a coconut frond in my aunt’s garden. I hurriedly took notes in my field book for subsequent identification from a bird guide. This is a habit I would recommend to every raw bird watcher; for otherwise memory would play tricks when one attempts to write the details later, making identification difficult or inaccurate.

My two cousins at Kurunegala knew of every nook and corner of the neighborhood and took me roaming into the paddy fields, coconut estates and scrubland as well as along streams and into the jungle in the famous Elephant Rock at Kurunegla. The present day road along which a car would now take passengers right up to the summit was not in existence in those days, and we three boys joyously trekked along footpaths through the forest up to the summit, which I still remember with nostalgia.

One day they suggested that we should visit a small tank at Thittawella and so we set off, walking all the way. At the end of the long walk I set my eyes for the first time on this tank and immediately fell in love with it as it proved to be a refuge for water birds, which were at that time all new to me. Thereafter we made frequent forays to this small tank in the mornings or afternoons and spent hours at a stretch at the site.

We had all the time in the world and were not hampered in anyway by tuition classes as the present day kids are! I used to sit there and observe the abundant bird life, taking notes with meticulous care and attention to detail, while my two cousins who lacked such patience wandered off on their own frolics until I had finished my work. Later, back at the house, I used to copy these field notes and sketches of birds neatly on to a permanent record book.

Thittawella tank is situated along the Kurunegala-Puttalam road. It is small and is in a picturesque setting. Towards its southern end are some boulders of varying size standing in the water, which break up the monotony of an otherwise plain sheet of water. The largest of these is covered with scrub vegetation, offering refuge to many water birds, including herons and cormorants.

Varieties of water plants grow in different sections of the tank and offer varying shades of green. These plants consist of water lilies, reeds and many kinds of floating vegetation. The centre of the tank is mostly overgrown with lotuses with their beautiful pure white blossoms, while in the shallow periphery are the olu (Nymphaea lotus) plants with their equally beautiful, pale pink and white flowers.

These patches of vegetation are interspersed with stretches of unobstructed water glimmering in the sunlight. In the south-eastern horizon, rising out of the plains like giant sentinels, stand large boulders and mountains so characteristic of Sri Lankan scenery. On a poya day the rising full moon casts a magic spell over this peaceful scene and many an enchanting evening have I had while seated on the bund of this tank to enjoy its varied bird life and tranquillity.

To the casual observer Thittawella tank would, at first glance, appear to be devoid of any bird life. The bigger and more glamorous avifauna in the form of painted storks, pelicans, open-bills, white-necked storks and spoonbills would be prominent by their absence. It would be to the keen and patient student of nature that it would gradually unravel the mysteries that are hidden deep in the beds of reeds, clumps of water lilies, and tangles of floating weeds. I would sit on the banks, take out my binoculars and notebook, and wait patiently for things to happen, and they did happen gradually and unobtrusively.

Jacana

I noticed a strange-looking bird, like a young chicken, walking on the leaves of the water lilies. It was mostly white, wore a necklace of black and had a bronze back and short stump of a tail. It had several companions walking about on the lily pads. It puzzled me to see other similar individuals but with a different plumage, consisting of a jet-black belly and long black tail. They took to the air uttering strange cat-like calls (hence their Sinhala name halal-sera) and flew from one part of the tank to another like giant butterflies fluttering in the wind.

My notebook began to fill up with copious notes and sketches. That was my first introduction to the water birds of the tank and it was the beautiful pheasant-tailed jacana. The birds were in two different kinds of plumage, the non-breeding and the breeding. Later I would spend hours watching them walking daintily on the water lilies as their long toes helped to spread their weight over a large surface on the leaves. As they walked they fed on various small creatures and the vegetation. The jacanas flew low over the water in a tail-heavy flight with their long legs trailing behind. The black-edged white wings made a striking contrast against the green water plants as they flew.

Purple coot

Glimpses of brilliant blue patches among the vegetation on closer scrutiny revealed the presence of several rotund birds partly hidden among the plants. As I watched patiently some of them came out into the open and I had my first sighting of the colourful purple coot. It had a scarlet bill and long reddish legs. The plumage had various hues of blue in different parts of the body, varying from sky blue in the belly to dark purplish blue on the back. The short tail was jerked up repeatedly as it walked, flashing the white under-tail coverts. It constantly used to feed among water plants, a tasty morsel being held down with one foot while the bird devoured it piece by piece with its short thick bill.

The coots spent most of the day feeding, preening and resting while hidden among the vegetation and were not given to much flying. Towards the evening they came out into the open and were readily observed. The flight when undertaken was short and heavy as they flew up on to a clump of lotuses or reeds. Sometimes a sharp note “trrrt…, trrrt…” was uttered in flight.

I once saw a purple coot standing on top of a clump of reeds towards dusk. It bent down the reeds one by one with its bill and trampled on them, thus making a platform of reeds and then stood on it motionless for several minutes. With the approach of twilight it sat down on it, probably to roost for the night. Its mate also made a similar platform close by.

Teal

On scanning the tank carefully with binoculars, some brownish birds were seen, their plumage blending perfectly with the brown and green surroundings. These small duck-like birds kept to the middle of the tank. They were partially hidden by the vegetation and kept still, keeping a wary eye on any intruder. Thus I got my first glimpse of the whistling teal or the tree duck. Sometimes they would swim slowly in the open patches of water, but always keeping close to cover.

They were most of the time in small groups of up to half a dozen birds, but sometimes in pairs. From time to time a bird would put its head and neck under water in order to feed on aquatic vegetation. In the evenings some birds would take to wing and fly around the tank uttering their shrill whistling calls, before settling down once again in the water. They may circle the tank a few times or would fly away to a distant foraging ground.

It was sometime later that I was able to set my eyes on its smaller but more beautiful cousin, the cotton

teal. As I approached the tank one day, a pair of small ducks came flying fast and low and hit the water close to the shore without any apparent slowing down. They started swimming slowly in an open patch of water in a curious waddling action. The male was pure white in its head, neck and belly and a metallic greenish-black on the back. It had a black collar round its neck and was quite a handsome bird.

However its mate, in contrast, was an inconspicuous, brownish bird. After a few minutes they started bobbing their heads rapidly in unison as if agreeing on something.

They took off as suddenly as they had landed and flew away to the centre of the tank. The male displayed a striking white wing bar in flight. My subsequent sightings of them were few and far between owing to their small numbers and also to the fact that they merged perfectly with their surroundings as they swam among the lotus leaves.

Other water birds

As I sat patiently by, the tank day by day I became familiar with its other avifauna. A purple heron would stand motionless among the water plants in perfect camouflage as it waited patiently for a fish to turn up. It slowly extended its long cinnamon-coloured neck on the approach of a fish, and stabbed it with its dagger-like bill. When resting, it kept the neck curved in the shape of an S. When alarmed it had the neck pointing straight and upward. It kept still, the body merging perfectly with the reeds.

Scattered about the tank were numerous pond herons. Little and median egrets were ever vigilant in their quest for prey. A streak of yellow revealed a yellow bittern as it darted on blackish wings into a reed bed. This being the smallest member of the heron family, it was always difficult to see this bird owing to its skulking habits. A black bittern, with its brown-streaked neck poised to strike, walked stealthily along the edge of a reed bed. It was much more readily observed.

My curiosity was greatly aroused one day when I spotted several small birds swimming and diving in the water. I thought them to be baby ducks, but as I gathered more details of their brown, maroon and buff plumage, I realised that they were the dabchicks or little grebes. I was fascinated, and spent hours watching them swimming, diving and racing through the water chasing each other. As they did so they frequently uttered a shrill, high pitched call ” hi hi hi hi hi….” It was hard to tell where they would reappear after a dive. Occasionally, when swimming, a bird would stop, raise its body up, exposing the buff white underparts, and shuffle the plumage before resuming its swim.

I would get an occasional glimpse of a kora or watercock (wil-kukula, S) as it took a short flight among the dense bushes growing on the small islets in the tank. These shy, skulking birds are quite difficult to see and one would only be rewarded by patiently sitting and observing. During the breeding season they become vociferous and more active, taking short flights among the reeds and the bushes, thus offering a greater chance of seeing them.

Little cormorants and Indian shags dived for fish in the open stretches of water. Some were seen drying their outstretched wings in the sun, perched on a rock or tree stump.



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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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