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India’s Neighbourhood Policies and Neighbours

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By Austin Fernando

Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India

It is ‘Neighbourhood Policy, ‘Look East,’ ‘Act East.’ All deal with the Indian neighbours. A recent article motivated me to revisit this issue. The author has conveyed happenings between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh and proposed amending Indian policies and actions towards neighbours. For the sake of inclusivity, I wish to supplement some attributes on the subject.

India and Nepal

The friendly relationship between India and Nepal was affected due to an issue regarding the Kalapani District boundary. A new map produced by India after Article 370 caused it. Nepal objected to this map. The Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded that the Indian map accurately depicted the sovereign territory of India, and it had not revised the Indian boundary with Nepal. Nepal disagreed.

In May 2020, Nepalese PM said that Nepal would “bring back” the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area “at any cost.” However, India responded calmly. Minister MEA Dr. Jaishankar was reported saying that the “sharp positioning” by the leadership would have been “magnified by the media.” (Hindu-20-8-2020).

Recently, the Nepal Cabinet released a political map, which showed the questioned tri-junction as a part of Nepal. Nepal has two tri-junctions with India. The currently disputed is the Lipulekh Pass, at the border of Uttarakhand with Nepal. Nepal contends that the Lipulekh Pass belongs to them, as per the Sugauli Treaty signed between the British East India Company and Nepal in 1816. Nevertheless, India wishes to hold on due to strategic security reasons.

For India, this could be minor. But, the principle of Indian action may be a concern for any neighbour. For us, it arises from the potentiality of possible Indian behaviour on the Palk Bay, which could arise from the operations purportedly discussed by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa on the fishery issue lately. The fishery issue is very sensitive in India. On the pressures from the politically powerful South Indan fishermen lobby, India can demand operational adjustments to the international maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India to ease the Indian fisherfolk. If it happens, hardly anything could be done. Our experience at the aerial food drop in June 1987, blatantly violating our air-space, showed how other powerful countries avoid responding negatively against India.

India -Nepal issue has escalated with Nepal seeking identity cards from visitors from India. Nepal relates this decision to COVID-19. Will Nepal make the identity card requirement permanent? The Nepalese PM Sharma Oli has blamed India for the spread of COVID-19 in Nepal. The ID-cards requirement for Indians is a step to tighten the cross-border movement. It affects the benefits for traders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Some constructs that Chinese influence and domestic political problems for PM Oli are relevant for the Nepalese attitude. Therefore, there is business, politics, and hence the response from India also could affect economics, business, and politics of landlocked Nepal. Accordingly, Chinese intrusions cannot be discounted. We have seen these issues play around in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Nepal (Sri Lanka is not exempted!) can learn a lesson regarding Indian wrath if past experiences are perused on how India responded to Bhutan in 2012, when then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, at the Rio+20 Summit. India has retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. From that point on, ‘possessiveness and domination began to outweigh respect and trust in public perceptions of the Bhutan-India friendship.’

 

India and Bangladesh

Take the Bangladesh issues with India. The events usually quoted are the continuations of others arisen between India and Bangladesh. Of course, China would have executed its strategies to move Bangladesh willingly. China becoming the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh or large-scale infrastructure projects cannot be overnight developments.

Last October, Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina signed seven bilateral treaties with India. This act disappointed and infuriated Bangladeshis that “they could not expect their leadership to look out for country’s interest and well-being.” (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/). This was almost concurrently timed with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. So much so, when anti-India sentiments were expressed in Bangladesh, India assured that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would not affect Bangladeshis.

Developments in India overtook these assurances. This created concerns for Bangladeshis, as stated by Sabria Chowdhury Balland, as follows (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/)

(i) Though Indians state that there will not be any adverse effects from CAA and NRC, Bangladeshis have genuine concerns and apprehensions that they might unleash an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and the Muslims attempting to escape persecution in India.

(ii) The Bangladeshis are worried whether an issue like Rohingya refugees would repeat.

(iii) They are concerned that denial of Indian citizenship to Muslims anywhere in India will trigger strong reactions from Islamist parties in Bangladesh and even within the Awami League.

(iv) Bangladesh considers the criticism that Hindus in Bangladesh are persecuted and tortured is wrong, baseless, and unwarranted.

(v) India’s attempts to equate Bangladesh to fundamentally theocratic Muslim nations (e.g., Pakistan and Afghanistan) are unacceptable to Bangladeshis.

(vi) The Bangladeshi government has declared that it will allow people to enter from India only upon proof of Bangladeshi citizenship, which is problematic.

(vii) Hence Bangladesh cannot be used as a dumping ground for ‘bigoted regimes’ such as those in Myanmar and India.

These show the neighborhood issues between the two countries are deeprooted and somewhat ugly. Though Pakistan openly criticized the Kashmir issue, Bangladesh was comparatively toned-down. When we ambassadors met Vijay Ghokle, Secretary MEA, to hear the Indian government’s version on Kashmir, the Bangladesh diplomat would have been hiding his country’s natural stance, and bogusly showing that the issue is an “internal affair of India.”

However, the CAA legislation was different from Article 370 on Kashmir and created a bizarre situation in the case of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called off their visits to India over the situation arising out of the CAA, giving scheduling problems as the reason. But, he cancelled it a day after Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Bangladesh was persecuting its minorities, especially Hindu women, adding that “uncertainty in India is likely to affect its neighbours.” It could even be conceived as a threat. Separately, Momen was a bit harsh, telling the BBC’s Bengali Service, praising communal harmony standards in Bangladesh and adding “If he (Amit Shah) stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see exemplary communal harmony.”

Next was the Bangladesh Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam, who canceled his participation in high profile Raisina Dialogue. The Bangladesh Foreign Office, however, said that Alam was accompanying PM Sheikh Hasina to the UAE, and his absence had nothing to do with Dhaka’s unhappiness over the CAA.

 

Money as a game-changer

India has shared financial assistance to boost its neighbourhood policy. To wit, I may mention that when the new Bhutanese PM paid the first State Visit to India, PM Modi assured to play an important role in Bhutan’s economic development and announced INR 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year Plan. When the new Maldivian President made his first State Visit, PM Modi pledged the Maldives $ 1.4. Billions of financial assistance to relieve the debt with China. We have the same problem, but are unfortunate!

Additionally, Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had made their first State Visits to India earlier, and they were nicely treated by India “with sweet talk,” not in the same fashion with those quoted above. For President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, this attitude changed.

However, I do not discount the strategic value of those countries to India, especially in the northern and north-eastern boundaries and in the Indian Ocean Region. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is of no lesser strategic value for India.

Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman earmarked INR 8,415 crore for neighbourhood countries: INR 1,050 crore to Nepal, INR 2,802 crores to Bhutan, INR 1,100 crore for Mauritius, INR 576 crore to the Maldives, but, to Sri Lanka INR 250 crore. Compare the population statistics of Bhutan (800,000), Maldives (436,000), Mauritius (1.2 million), and Sri Lanka (22 million). If considered on population, the logic of distribution by Madam Sitharaman is unexplainable. Of course, there are “extraneous reasons” for such “favouritism.”

During the last decade, Bhutan has received INR 32,280 crore, Afghanistan 4,855 crore, Nepal 4,166 crore, Mauritius 2,520 crore, Sri Lanka 2,317 crore and Maldives INR 1,787 crore. What Bhutan receives for one year from this Budget is more than what we have received over a decade! This distribution was skewed against us.

India has shown extraordinary empathy to the Maldives, which endorses that Indian neighbourliness depended on their wishes. I may quote a few recent decisions to prove. PM Modi’s good gesture was expanded with a package for the Maldives on August 13th, 2020. It was a $100 million grant and $400 million new line of credit, for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP). The request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa purportedly made for $1 billion reported in the media, does not seem to be forthcoming. If China assists us, there will be negative comments, though. The MEA Minister Dr. S Jaishankar also announced the creation of an air bubble with the Maldives to facilitate peoples’ movement from both sides for employment, tourism, and medical emergencies. Further, Minister Jaishankar announced the commencement of the regular cargo ferry service between the two countries.

When we compare with neighbouring Sri Lanka, these happen when we haggle over the Eastern Container Terminal, Trinco Oil Tanks, Mattala, etc., and seeing LTTE threats over resuming of the ferry service and when competitor Maldives is accommodative. Hence, this assistance makes sense for India because the recipient of benefits will be India while turning away China from the Maldives. Anyway, if competitive financing is kept open, it may be another like-minded country organization that may evolve, and power play in the region also may adjust accordingly, as the Indian author insinuates.

 

China factor

As the writer has said, the size of China’s economy gives it a significant advantage over countries. I mention Adarsh Varma, who says that China’s foreign direct investments outside China exceeded 220 billion dollars in 2016, surging 246 percent from 2015. He pointed out that Chinese loans to many IOR littorals in Asia and Africa far outstrip the loans that these countries receive from IMF or other developed countries, and FDIs tend to monopolize resources and favor the investor while supplanting domestic enterprises and creating a balance of payment problem for recipient countries. Political and diplomatic dependence follow shortly if the countries are unable to pay the loans. We faced this.

The challenge for India with the neighbourhood is to counter this status. The Chinese not only intrude into development but strategically deal with politics (e.g., Sheik Hasina and Imran Khan reference). For Sri Lanka, China has throughout stood with us at the UN interventions. She assisted the war effort through. These are registered in our minds. Therefore, anyone posing to compete will have to muster resources and consistently back the assisting countries. This is why China has a foothold even in the BIMSTEC countries, irrespective of the organization being an Indian product.

I am reminded of what Avathar Singh Bhasin wrote about Indian expectations from neighbours. He said that they should not seek to invite outside power(s), and if any assistance is needed, they should look to India. “India’s attitude and relationship with her immediate neighbors depended on their appreciation of India’s regional security concerns; they would serve as buffer states in the event of an extra-regional threat and not proxies of the outside powers…”

China does not show Indo-phobia or Americ-phobia or Jap-phobia when extending support under BRI. They go on a ruthless path. They develop maritime, railway connectivity, not being limited to String of Pearls or the Silk Route. Therefore, the challenges for India are to match this vast machination and to rid of phobias. As the writer emphasized, policies and actions to foster upgraded neighborhood relationships will be a must.



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Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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