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Questions and Answers: Aruna Roy

21 Jan

Aruna Roy, a political and social activist, gave up her career in the Indian Administrative Service in 1975 to devote her time to social work and social reform. She has focused her energies on Rajasthan, where she helped establish the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in 1990, a grass roots peoples organization that works for the empowerment of workers and peasants. In 2000, Ms. Roy won the Ramon Magsaysay award for community leadership and for her role in empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information. As Maoist violence continues unabated in the country, Ms. Roy spoke exclusively to Jyoti Malhotra for the Wall Street Journal. Excerpts from the interview.

WSJ: In recent weeks, India’s Maoists rebels have unleashed a reign of terror across the countryside, especially in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, murdering people and damaging public property. As someone who has worked as an activist for many decades in rural India, what is the reason for this sudden violence?

AR: It is now widely accepted that development has not reached people in Chhattisgarh and other parts of the country. The Adivasis, or tribals who live here, are delinked from other parts of the country socially, culturally and politically, they are really like an island. Since Independence, most government officials have treated these areas as punishment postings. Few have wanted to live and work there and those who have gone have not treated the tribals as their equals. It’s been a sort of sahib-servant relationship. Several activists and those in the development sector did work there, but always came under surveillance like Binayak Sen. With Sen, as you know, he was arrested and put behind bars and accused of sympathizing with the Maoists. An important group which reached the tribal areas were the Christian missionaries who set up schools there, followed by Hindu right-wing groups who decided that the tribals must be “saved” from the Christians. These religious tensions usually ended in violence. In the meantime, the tribal belt, which is really the mineral belt of India, became the focus of interest of multinational companies…

WSJ: Tell me the geographical extent of the tribal belt?

AR: It’s huge, from Bihar and Bengal to Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, via Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Maharashtra. Maoist rebels claim they control 182 districts out of 604 districts in the country. Because of this overwhelming mineral wealth and the desire of the MNCs to tap it, the government, very often, are in hand in glove with these MNCs, and rode roughshod over all democratic norms and principles of political equality and equity to acquire the land. The government tried to use the laws to clear the forests of the tribals who opposed the taking over of their lands. It didn’t work because the law also empowers the tribals to rights over land. When you touch a raw nerve like land, the people rise up. In fact, there is this contradiction today in India, where we talk about the right to property as a fundamental right . But that should also mean that the right to property of the tribals is equally valid and important. So the “persuasion” tried by government and MNCs didn’t work. Alternative employment was offered, but it was so meager that there was an uncomfortable impasse for some time. Meanwhile, there remains no system of governance, no delivery, no sympathy or understanding on the part of the government per se.

WSJ: But there were several infrastructure projects that came up, dams and roads and bridges, surely they were made to help the people?

AR: If you’ve been to any dam site you’ll realize that once dams are constructed, they often don’t benefit the oustees. Often the land gets sold to outsiders. I saw an interesting pamphlet the other day about “Jat land” in Chhatisgarh. Now the Jats are a community in faraway Haryana and Punjab and they’ve been sold land in Chhattisgarh ! It’s illegal because it’s a violation of the rights of tribals who cannot be alienated from their land. So it’s a ‘benami’ transaction (carried out in someone else’s name).

WSJ: How did the Chhatisgarh tribals end up selling their land to the Jats?

AR: The tribals are still not only needy but also very naïve, they don’t know what their rights are, they often make uninformed choices and can be persuaded to mortgage their land and when they cant repay their loans, well, they sell it. In fact, the rest of India has allowed them to remain primitive in their responses. We have not done anything to offer proper opportunities for education or given them a meaningful stake in the mainstream.

WSJ: So how did the Maoists get involved?

AR: This fertile ground offered the Maoists the perfect opportunity because the state was seen as the villain in every way possible. Of course, the state reacted too. With violence it wasn’t going to take things lying down. So they created, at least in Chhattisgarh, the ‘Salwa Judum’ or a people’s army. They armed people, including children, with guns to fight the Maoists. Several people opposed the creation of such a vigilante army, set up and supported by both the Congress and the BJP.

Now an army is mandated to fight an outside, invading force, but how can it fight its own people? The need to seek political and developmental solutions remains on top of the agenda. But the State of Chhatisgarh has become a police state. All those who protested against the ‘Salwa Judum’ were and are being silenced and jailed. So in a situation where the tribals are beaten up by the forest guards, fired upon by policemen and even set upon by the Salwa Judum, what is their recourse without access to democracy ? We have now set up a group called the ‘Citizens for Peace’ and our stand is that all peaceful means must be explored and political negotiations must take place.

WSJ: Home minister P. Chidambaram has said that you should negotiate on behalf of the tribals…

AR: We have offered to come up with new ideas, and help set up a dialogue. But we are clear that we can’t negotiate on behalf of the tribals or with the government. It is the government’s business to negotiate, not ours.

WSJ : So what is your group going to do?

AR: We want to create public opinion that tells both sides of the story. Those of us who live in the big cities know the power of the media and how the media has access only to one kind of thought. But people need to know both sides.

WSJ: Do you think Mr. Chidambaram’s offer to negotiate with the tribals is an acknowledgement that the state has failed?

AR: The government has failed, yes! But the state will fail if the Army and Air Force are used to crackdown against the Maoists. The Air Force is already supposed to have done a survey of the entire area. If the Army and the Air Force do go in, it’s war. That is what we want to avoid. We have openly said that anybody who indulges in violence or kills is a murderer, be it a policeman or a tribal person.

However, I also want to make one thing clear. The law must be fair, there must be good governance and the state must allow independent monitoring teams into the area.

WSJ: Do you think good governance will solve the problem? Isn’t there an ideological underpinning to the Maoist violence?

AR: Good governance may not resolve it, but it will prepare some space for resolution.

WSJ : But you don’t think it’s an ideological struggle ?

AR :The ideological struggle is for the Maoists. For the people it’s different; they are fighting for succor. The people have taken to this ideology because there is no alternative, or they see it as their best alternative. If you give them a better alternative, the people will go there. I would like to quote the Bolivian prime minister Evo Morales here who said, there is the Left and there is the Right, but we are the people.

In our country, the way it often works is that when we vote for a particular political party, the vote is the most reasonable choice from the vast set of negative choices that we face. For the tribals, the truth is that there is no choice, or very little.

WSJ: Are you saying that there is little alternative for the tribals but to follow the Maoists in taking up arms because the government doesn’t exist?

AR: Yes. The truth is that the government doesn’t exist in any of these areas, or hardly. It has only existed to exploit them.

WSJ: So why the violence? Do you think the violence is justified?

AR: These are two separate questions. Violence from either side cannot be justified, but it occurs due to many reasons. It’s a failure of listening to the people. If the state consistently doesn’t listen to the people who are the sovereign, then what results may seem like “irrationality.” Although I don’t think it’s irrational, the fact that the tribal is taking up arms to defend his life, his family, his land. If a man dies fighting for his country against Pakistan he is considered a hero. But if a tribal dies fighting for his land, why don’t we call him a hero? Isn’t it the same thing? As for the violence, we can’t justify it, but we have to understand the circumstances that lead people to choose violence over other means to fight for their lives and livelihood.

WSJ: What about a state like West Bengal which have been run by the Left parties for several decades, why are the Maoists rebelling against them?

AR: There again, MNCs were brought in without consulting the people, which is why they rose up against the Left in Bengal. This has had a direct impact in the elections. Nandigram and Singur, two sites in Bengal where large tracts of land were sought to be given to MNCs are an example of the alienation from people. Truth is, the people who have gone to the “other side,” who became Maoists, were once with the Left, they were supporters of the party. A party which used to consistently listen to the people and were its voice has, somewhere, not listened to them.

WSJ: You say that MNCs grabbed land in the name of development, but several MNCs like the Tatas in Singur in West Bengal, Posco in Orissa are trying to build industry, improve per capita income and socio-economic indicators…?

AR: Let us say that most of the projects grab more land than they need and come in without any democratic process of consultation with people. The government has given large tracts of land to Special Economic Zones and to MNCs in the name of boosting export, but I would like to know whether exports have really gone up. Moreover, they hardly employ local people…We have to ask ourselves, who is benefiting from this industrialization. Who is losing?

WSJ: Aren’t we romanticizing this? After all, industrialization is the way forward…

AR: This is the voice of the people, not a few romantic young people with revolutionary ideals. There is no transparency, that’s the problem. Nobody knows whether the MNC is telling the truth when they demand a certain acreage for developing a project. Or whether the people have really been consulted and whether the government has the people in mind when it agrees to certain terms and conditions. There have been so many betrayals…The breakdown of trust is more or less complete.

Meanwhile, the question also is, what is “development”? If I don’t have food in my belly and my land has been taken away for a big project, is that “development?” How am I going to gauge it? Does 8% or 9% growth every year constitute “development”? Should we measure it by the property we own in the cities or the amount of gold that is bought and sold or whether the people of India have access to food, shelter and health?

And if someone thinks that this 8%-9 % growth is going to take India forward and India’s going to fly, then believe me, it is going to be pulled down by the remaining 80%. That is why this 80% has got to be nurtured, they have to be given rights and access, they need some share in this spectacular growth of ours.

WSJ: And violence…

AR: It is the absolute last resort. When reason has failed, when rationality has failed, when compassion has failed…History teaches us that violence only occurs when everything else has failed. If this is beneficial development, why is there so much violent opposition to it?

WSJ: So this “red corridor” that runs through the heart of India, a state within a state…

AR: I don’t know how “red” it is. But we have to ask ourselves, how to take this forward. I would go the Gandhian way, which is talk to the other side and treat them as equals, negotiate, find out what’s gone wrong. But we can’t send the army in as Home Minister P.Chidambaram is threatening to do. In any case we must talk to the people who are facing the consequences the most.

WSJ: Its interesting that the Congress-led government at the Centre has the same views as all the opposition parties which run the affected states, whether it is the Left in Bengal or the BJP in Chhatisgarh?

AR: Why is that surprising? After all, every political party laying claim to a different ideology has ruled different parts of the country at different times and nothing changed for the tribals. Moreover, the tribal leadership has either not been accepted and promoted, nor have their histories or ideologies become part of the mainstream. Instead, they’ve been forever the subjects or recipients of ideologies evolved by others. One of the biggest failures of independent India has been the failure to give the tribals a place in the national scene.

WSJ: Do you think government programs like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) work in disaffected areas like these?

AR: That’s what the states are claiming. However, programs like the NREGA demand a modicum of peace, you can’t work in the fields if violence is breaking out all around you.

WSJ: On the Right to Information (RTI) Act, with which you’ve been closely associated since its inception 4 years ago, what is the progress so far?

AR: The RTI has become a lifeline for democracy in our country. Despite the failures of various state commissioners or government to implement Section 4. (This mandates the government to publicly disclose as many as 17 bits of information, including its budget, personnel, areas of work, etc.) That’s why today the government can’t touch the RTI without touching the whole of India. Because it’s been used by a variety of people for a variety of reasons, with reasonable success. Sharing information is sharing power and nobody understands this better than the bureaucracy and the politicians, in that order.

But the people are now asking for their, for our share of governance, our share in decision-making, in fact if the tribals of India had had RTI 40 years ago, the situation that we face today wouldn’t have happened. Wherever I travel, people feel the RTI is their Act and they own it. This is a fundamental change from what existed years ago.

Of course, a number of problems remain, of infrastructure, non-delivery, of systems not being in place, information commissioners not being trained, etc. But on the whole, the Act has worked.

WSJ: But despite its success, the government wants to amend it. Why?

AR: The government wants to put all file notings under wrap. Meaning, all discussions, consultations, all reasons for decision-making should become secret. Which means you’ll know nothing about the process, just the end decision.

WSJ: But so far the process has been open?

AR: Yes, so far the process has been open, although they now want to close that. The Department of Personnel & Training which comes under the Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the functioning of the RTI, is now saying that the “consultative process” as well as anything that protects the “candour” of people expressing their opinion, will not be revealed. Behind this move to amend the Act and to kill its spirit, is the bureaucracy.

WSJ: So the government which gave the RTI to the people four years ago is now taking it away?.

AR: Equally horrifying is that all applications which are “frivolous or vexatious” will be disallowed. Now who is going to decide what that is? Possibly, the policeman or the ‘patwari’ (village revenue official) or the ‘sarpanch’ (village headman)… Naturally, everything will be “vexatious”…The move undermines the entire Act itself.

WSJ: You’ve been involved with the NREGA on the ground, how well do you think it has worked?

AR: I will say that this is the first rural development service where people know what they are receiving so they can monitor it, where there has been concurrent evaluation, where we know what the losses or gains are. So, every time I read about corruption in the NREGA I am thrilled, not because there is corruption but because for the first time, so many people are protesting against waste of public money. India should be proud.

WSJ: Give me an example…

AR: A women’s group in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, has got 1400,000 rupees ($29,710) as unemployment allowance because they applied for work and didn’t get it. According to the Act, you have to get work in 15 days within five kilometers of your village, and if the government can’t give you work, it has to pay you unemployment allowance…Could you ever think of something like this before?

WSJ: But what about the enormous leakages and lakhs of rupees down the drain…

AR: For the first time, we know where the money has gone, even if its down the drain. We know who’s swindled it and how it has been swindled. In Bhilwara, in Rajasthan, we have just completed a social audit. We used RTI to access public records and bring them out into the public domain, share it with people whose names are on the records and took a public meeting to testify whether their names were rightly or wrongly there.

You see, RTI is a mandatory provision in the NREGA, which means transparency and accountability on the part of government functionaries is now mandatory. That’s how you find out what’s going on, because now the people can’t be refused information. It’s mandatory for every ‘panchayats’ to do a social audit before the next installment of money is released by the government.

WSJ: What is a social audit?

AR: It is an audit where every penny can be tracked, but it goes beyond the money to questions like quality and choice. They are now taking place all over the country. In Andhra Pradesh, they do more than 2 dozen audits every day, and over the last few months they’ve recovered more than 60 million rupees from defaulters…For me, this is democracy at work.

WSJ: Tell me about your Bhilwara social audit?

AR: We were able to get some transparency in the muster rolls, in the labor lists. Then we discovered how money for materials was being wasted. There was this bicycle repair shop that was issuing bills for the supply of cement and materials worth lakhs of rupees. We traced this through VAT, etc, and now the whole lower political system and the lower bureaucracy is up in arms against us. I’ll give you a positive example too. Thirty Bhil tribal families, which have been migrating for several years looking for work in the big cities, for the first time did not migrate last year. Because of the NREGA, they found work in the village.

If there had been a process like this in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand, in the tribal areas, why should there have been any violence at all? Fifteen years ago, when we talked of social audit, we were told we were Naxalites, but today a social audit is an institutional form of governance.

WSJ: So this is now being replicated all over the country?

AR: Two years ago, an industrial design institute in Pune, Maharashtra, came to us asking us they wanted to look at the tools used by women in the NREGA. In the last 60 years, nobody has taken so much interest in tools used by poor women. What should the ‘gainti’ or the pick-axe be like, can fiber-glass rods be used to reduce its weight, and should it be both-sided or one-sided? What about the ‘tagari,’ or the tray in which the mud is lifted, should it be lighter? If you carry it on your hip, should it be shaped round or should it have a dent?

Now, with one click of the computer mouse you can find out the name of the man or the woman who has got work under NREGA, her job card number, how many days of work they’ve got, how they have been paid, etc. It’s all on the Web site and its open to everyone.

WSJ: Thank you very much.


Death by drought and more

26 Dec


In drought-hit Bundelkhand, corruption is not just a tired cliché from a bad Bollywood movie, it is a life-threatening human rights emergency.

Corruption exacerbates poverty in Bundelkhand…the money earmarked for NREGA is being cleverly pocketed by village council leaders and unscrupulous officials.

Sesame shoots in the fields of Bundelkhand make it seem there is no drought. But the crops are stunted and useless.

Bundelkhand, which comprises six districts in Madhya Pradesh and seven in Uttar Pradesh, has had a drought for seven years except the last one. At the peak of farming season this year, rains were half of normal.

In between Mahoba and Chhattarpur districts lies Khajuraho airport. Swanky roads and five-star hotels dot the tourist destination and belie the silent human catastrophe unfolding just kilometres away. Drought may have ravaged the fields but State apathy and the brazenly corrupt officials are more brutal.

Multitudes throng us in every village we visited. Willing to clutch at straws in their desperation, their voices would go: “Have you written about my mentally challenged son?”… “I applied for old age pension long back.” … “I have been anxiously waiting for my widow pension card.” “They haven’t paid my NREGA wages.”

Inaccessible healthcare

Eighty-five-year old Motiya, slumped on a cot, gives out a heartrending cry as we step into his dingy hut. His wife sleeps nearby. Both have had fever for four days. Motiya has bed sores and can barely move. Villagers say that often worms crawl out of his mouth. “The other day my father defecated in bed. I cleaned him up. Where is the money to get them medicines?” asks Motiya’s son Chaniya, a daily-wage labourer in Seelaun village of Chhattarpur. The government hospital is 25 km away, and rarely stocks medicines.

Cattle, abandoned on highways, and the old are among the causalities of this drought as families flee a disaster. In village after village, elders have in vain applied for pension that provides Rs. 275 a month. Often the local officials demand bribes from penniless petitioners. Also, families who own more than five acres of land are not classified as being Below Poverty Line or BPL. It does not bother the officials that the drought has rendered income from land inadequate.

Dalit woman Jhharokhan Paswan in Chandauli village of Mahoba could not complete the last rites of her husband who died of grinding hunger last year. “My blind husband died a slow painful death,” she says. A tattered sari covers her old body. Had the grain bank supported by ActionAid partner organisation Kriti Shodh Sansthan not given her 40 kg of wheat, she would have had to go on begging. Last month, she threw a dried-up chapatti on the district collector’s table. He promised to mark her as BPL. And she is still waiting.

Against the wall

Despair is all too common in Bundelkhand. Rani’s husband Priti Pal Singh jumped into a well in Chandauli three months back. Their three acre land had stopped yielding, and he couldn’t repay a loan of Rs. 80,000 he took for his daughter’s wedding. Rani has asked for a job but the sarpanch argues over how an upper caste woman can go to work! Though only slightly better-off, villagers have been generous enough to offer food. “I dread to think what will happen if they stop. Sometimes I too feel like jumping into the well,” her voice falters. Nights spent listening to her children crying out of hunger are still fresh in her memory.

Corruption exacerbates poverty in Bundelkhand. The running of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or NREGA is an example. The scheme that promises 100 days’ work could have been a lifeline for rural families. But the money earmarked for it is being cleverly pocketed by formidable village council leaders and unscrupulous officials.

NREGA wages have not been paid to 200 people of Akauna village in Chhattarpur for eight months. Officials have yet to answer queries posed in March under the Right to Information Act on how many villagers got jobs in Akauna. Eighty villagers in Seelaun are yet to get remuneration. In village after village, inhabitants underline that those who are close to the panchayat leaders get NREGA work or a BPL tag.

Village council heads often refuse to accept written applications. Hence, little evidence remains of how many rural folk sought jobs and how many got them. The Afforestation Mega Campaign in Uttar Pradesh — a scheme worth Rs. 1582 million — was launched last year to boost the NREGA in drought-prone Bundelkhand. Mahoba was supposed to get 10 million saplings. “Only 40 per cent of the saplings have been sown, the rest are on paper,” reveals Manoj Kumar of Kriti Shodh Samsthan.

Six rivers have gone waterless in Mahoba. So, without food, water and jobs, people have no choice but to migrate to metropolises. Chhattarpur Collector E. Ramesh Kumar was quoted in The Hindudated September 5, “This is not distress migration.” He attributed the movement to seeking better opportunities.

“In Delhi we live in plastic huts next to roads. At times we fall from high rises doing construction work. Does that sound like a better opportunity?” asks Ramlal.

Ramesh Kumar, in a telephonic exchange, says he is only a few months old in Chhattarpur. And that “some shortcomings” perhaps do affect some villages.

Great divide

The distance between Bundelkhand’s poor and their political leaders is huge. Asked whether elected representatives have visited them ever since the polls, there are laughs all around in Chandauli.

Even as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said the country has enough food stored to prevent high inflation, hunger is widespread in Bundelkhand.

Those who are entitled to subsidised grains in Seelaun assert the full quota of 35 kg hardly ever reaches them. Numerous people across villages wryly confess that their meals consist of chapattis and salt. Bangle seller Ramesh Lakhera says, “I remember the taste of dal.” Lakhera’s earnings have plunged, and lentils cost a steep Rs. 90 per kg.

“Nearly 65 per cent of families are malnourished in 500 villages of Mahoba,” says Manoj Kumar.

In Banda district, 48 per cent of the children aged three or less are underfed. Government records reveal there are 130,000 malnourished children in Chhattarpur and 600 in Tikamgarh district. However grim these statistics may be, there’s more.

“We have discovered 40 undernourished children in Kandva village of Tikamgarh who have not been mentioned in anganwadi registers. Ten are severely malnourished,” says Narendra Sharma of ActionAid. Government-supported anganwadis supposedly provide nutritious food to toddlers and pregnant women.

In Mahoba, 165 anganwadis don’t function at all.

Denied rights

Rural families in Bundelkhand are routinely denied their right to health and life as they are often unable to access lifesaving treatment. The health system is seldom held to account. “Lately we rushed a young man bitten by a snake to the nearest health centre. They sent us away. He died on the way to a bigger hospital,” says Lallu Khan of Mahoba. Last year five children died of diarrhoea in Seelaun. Ramkali Ahirwar from Pratappura says bitterly, “We go to doctors when we are about to collapse. We die at home everyday.”

Asked whether the Uttar Pradesh government headed by a Dalit leader has made any difference to their lives, Phulia Rani, a Dalit woman in Chandauli, says “No.”

Meanwhile, the state website proudly announces “the historic decisions including increase in the budget for the welfare of Dalits and tribals by 41per cent”.

The author is a development journalist based in New Delhi and Hyderabad.

NREGA audit: Bhilwara shows the way

17 Oct

The Bhilwara social audit team repeatedly came up against resistance. Yet the coming together of civil society and government in Rajasthan augurs well for the future of NREGA.


For watchers of India’s grassroots democracy, the place to be in recently was Bhilwara in Rajasthan; the town and the countryside were decked out in carnival colours for an audit exercise that saw thousands come together — social rights activists led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan’s stalwart campaigners Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, NGOs, State government officials and Ministers, and observers from the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India .

The project under the scanner was India’s showpiece Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the purpose of the social audit was to assess how the programme worked, if it worked at all. Naturally, it was democracy, warts and all, in exhibition, with commitment and dedication battling entrenched vested interests at every step.

First, the positives. The most striking thing about the campaign was its unflagging spirit. For close to a fortnight starting October 1, bands of social audit activists, among them farmers, labourers and schoolteachers, ate, breathed, slept and walked — yes walked — NREGA. A total of 125 tolis (groups) set out on foot across 375 panchayats, poring over muster rolls, job cards, cash books, technical sanctions and other NREGA documents. They carried out spot inspections, gathered feedback from beneficiaries, and took complaints right down to where it mattered — to the local post office that blocked payment of wages and to the sarpanch who, villagers fearfully whispered, had siphoned off NREGA funds.

The padayatris drew no stipend, not taking even a food allowance, and quite gamely let on that “we were told we wouldn’t get a paisa, and must ask for food from the villagers.”

For those of us in the media who had descended on Bhilwara straight from the elitist environs of Delhi, there was something unreal about so many young men and women toiling hard without expectations of a reward. Yet how could anyone miss the commitment of a people who trudged from village to village in the hot afternoon sun, singing and shouting NREGA slogans? Sona chandi main nahi maanga; gadi, bangla, main nahi maanga; Limca, Shimca, Pepsi Cola, main nahi maanga; rozi roti, purna padhaiyee, photocopy; desh ka kharcha, kharcha ka hisab, main ne maanga (I don’t want gold and silver; car and bungalow; nor do I want Limca and Pepsi Cola; But I do want food, full literacy, photocopies and an account of public spending).

A bigger surprise was the Rajasthan government’s drive and enthusiasm. The young District Collector of Bhilwara, Manju Rajpal, was on the job 24×7, making surprise checks, holding meetings late into the night, examining complaints and booking FIRs against errant panchayat staff. Banna Lal, the State government’s newly appointed director of social audit, came with a formidable reputation, having unearthed a huge scandal in a food-for-work programme in Janawad in Rajsamand district. Also in Bhilwara for the audit was the State Commissioner for NREGA, Rajendra Bhanawat — again a tough taskmaster judging by the steel he displayed at a meeting with zilla parishad Chief Executive Officers. When a CEO quoted a village sarpanch as saying he needed to share his bribes with “people on top,” Mr. Bhanawat shot back: “Who are the people on top? I want the names.”

But this was not all. The Rajasthan Minister for Panchayati Raj and Rural Development Bharat Singh sat through five hours of a jan sunwai (public hearing) on the social audit, and the final day saw the organisers debate the outcome of the audit in the presence of Union Minister for Rural Development C.P. Joshi. Mr. Joshi, of course, was brought by a personal reason to Bhilwara: It is his parliamentary constituency.

Prima facie it all seemed too good to be true. As a hack remarked, the selfless MKSS activists, the earnest Collector, a government that would go the extra mile to facilitate the audit, all recalled a 1970s feel-good Doordarshan documentary more than real-time India with its conflicts and confrontations.

Obviously, the Bhilwara project was not quite the glitchless, seamless mass movement it appeared to first-time observers. Behind the impressive grand finale was a history of struggle for accountability in public spending. The MKSS had met with resistance in all its previous social audits in Rajasthan. In 2008 in Jhalawar, MKSS audit members were brutally set upon by village officials. The Bhilwara audit was itself preceded by days of dharna by sarpanchs (village heads) who feared being held to account. And though they came around eventually, the truce turned out to be fragile. In a lot of places, the records had to be wrested from reluctant panchayat officials. There were also showdowns between the sarpanchs and the auditors at many of the jan sunwais held on the penultimate day. In Baran village, a young woman auditor who reported irregularities in NREGA work was heckled by sarpanchs who told her plainly that she was a busybody. In Taswaria, the village heads insisted on being spared punishment for wrongdoings, unmindful of the presence of Minister Bharat Singh.

The social auditors confronted irregularities almost everywhere, and these went well beyond the expected complaints around delayed and stalled payment of wages. Job cards, required by law to be in the beneficiaries’ possession, were routinely withheld by the panchayat staff, resulting in NREGA workers not being able to claim what they earned. NREGA is premised on simple transparency, an example being the use of village walls to display work and payment details so that these become public knowledge. Yet the auditors repeatedly found fake muster rolls, bare walls and misplaced job cards. The material used in construction work was substandard and record books showed inflated figures against usage.

In the villages in Panchayat Samiti Hurda, the auditors were stonewalled by a vexing collusion between the panchayat staff and a powerful section of villagers for the use of JCB earthmovers for digging trenches. NREGA’s cost components are just two, labour and material, with asset creation being the end product. Yet because the programme’s primary objective is labour employment, machines, which would speed up asset creation, are excluded from it unless justified by impossibly difficult terrain. Even in such a situation, machines must be separately accounted for and not adjusted against material costs.

The sarpanch-villager collusion worked like this: The sarpanch and his acolytes would hire the JCB machine to cut down time and labour, yet fudge the record books to show full employment and extended periods of work, thus earning huge sums of money for no labour at all. Obviously, the conspiracy excluded the bulk of the workers in whose names the wages were drawn. When social auditors brought up this point at the Taswaria public hearing, they were shouted down by the sarpanchs and their supporters, all insisting that they were not up to doing tough NREGA labour. One villager challenged MKSS functionary Shanker Singh to do the labour himself.

Mr. Singh tried reasoning with the angry gathering. Using limericks and humour, he argued that the JCB was not an innocent machine but a precursor to big corporate giants eyeing the NREGA’s vast funds. “Mind you, the minute corporates come in, NREGA goes out,” Mr. Singh said, comparing the situation to the story of the mouse and the fat man. The man was unperturbed when the rat ran over his belly but in reality the rodent had shown the way to snakes and scorpions that would surely follow. As Mr. Singh explained to The Hindu, in Rajasthan alone, an estimated Rs. 9,500 crore will be spent on NREGA in 2009, making the programme lucrative for big corporates. If they came in, the NREGA would cease to be a wage employment programme.

The roadblocks that the Bhilwara social audit teams faced cannot however detract from the achievements of the exercise, which for the first time ever united two sections conventionally at loggerheads: civil society and government. And obviously the irregularities we witnessed in Bhilwara were nothing compared to the situation in other States where NREGA was struggling to get off the ground.

Reluctant as the Bhilwara sarpanchs were, they produced the account books in the end, enabling the audit teams to understand how the system worked and plan for future improvements.

As Ms Roy explained, “Yes, there are irregularities but I would think these form a small proportion of NREGA work. More to the point, through years of struggle we have institutionalised a system of transparency in Rajasthan which ensures against big scams.” Mr. Dey saw the audit as a prototype for NREGA assessment elsewhere in the country. “We have shown that given political will, resistance can be beaten down.”

Thirty-four months with no income

2 Sep

P. Sainath in THE HINDU dated 1.09.2009

For the poor and landless, NREGS is clearly the lifeline. But many shopowners and rain-fed farmers in Anantapur, Kurnool and Mahbubnagar have also sought work under it.



“You’re looking at a people whose next income — if they’re lucky — will materialise in January or February 2011,” says Y.V. Malla Reddy in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. He is a 35-year veteran of NGO activism in this district, which till last week had seen perhaps the worst rainfall of the season anywhere in the country. The “next income” is always a fragile process in this single-crop district heavily focussed on groundnut, but 16 months away?

“The kharif is gone,” say farmers in village after village. “The late rains will help us with some fodder and maybe we can sow a few short-duration crops. But the groundnut [the main crop] is gone.”

Had the kharif been all right, says Mr. Malla Reddy, “they would have harvested it in November and December. It would have been sold in January-February 2010, five months from now. With that gone, the next sowing will be in July 2010. If that crop succeeds — it is always an ‘if’ over here — they will harvest it four months later and earn from it only when they sell in January-February 2011.”

Mr. Reddy, who heads the Ecology Centre, Anantapur, also points out: “It’s not 16 months without an income, it’s 34. Last year, excess rains wrecked the groundnut crop; so many [farmers] drew a blank in January-February 2009. Which means their last income came in 2008 February. The next is due in January 2011.”

How, then, are people surviving at all right now? “Of the 175 families here,” says P. Challaiah, a farmer in Palavai village, “all but half a dozen are sending members to NREGS sites. In fact, 200 people go from this village for that. Take that away and we’re dead.” Migration has plummeted in this village which once saw a hundred people moving out in search of work each year. “But,” says farmer and activist Maruti, “we wish they’d run the programme for at least 200 days a year. If there’re three of us in a family, those ‘100 days’ are gone in 30.”

These feelings are echoed in Palacherla village of the same Rapthadu mandal. It has 350 families — and 400 people reporting for work at the NREGS sites. Here, too, migrations have fallen sharply in the past two years. “Even [rain-fed] farmers owning 20-25 acres are seeking NREGS work,” laughs Prakash Reddy, a farmer here. “We need it. Not only because of the higher wage. The landowners might pay the same as they have to compete with it. But how many days will they give — five or ten, at this time?”

It is the same picture across the Rayalaseema and Telangana regions. The poor in Andhra Pradesh have three things going for them: The NREGS, rice at Rs.2 a kg and pensions for the aged and women. At this point, the dependence on nooru rojula panni (hundred days’ work), as the NREGS is known here, is total.

In Anantapur, where it has performed robustly, Collector B. Janardhan Reddy and Project Director P. Murali confirm the explosion in demand. There were roughly 97,000 wage-seekers in July 2008. This July that number was over 2,20,000, an increase of over 126 per cent. In August last year, wage-seekers totalled 57,000 for that month. This year, in just the first 15 days of August, they numbered 1,46,000. That is an increase of over 156 per cent — with just half the month counted.

For the poor and landless it is clearly the lifeline. But many little (and sometimes not so little) shopowners in Anantapur, Kurnool and Mahbubnagar have also sought work in the NREGS. In the arid zones, rain-fed farmers with up to 30 acres have reported for work. In Nalgonda district, skilled stone-cutters, facing the collapse of their trade, are eager to come use it. The drought comes atop a crippling price rise and the “economic slowdown.” A time when many have suffered great loss of income.

So much so that Ganesh pandals across these districts look forlorn. “There’s no chanda [contributions] this year,” say people in Pothireddypally in Mahbubnagar. In Nalgonda, the political parties have stepped in — competitively — to put up the pandals as ordinary folk are broke. “We have a Congress Ganesh, a TDP one, a PRP rival, a TRS contender and even a Communist Ganesh,” laughs a local activist.

Why does Anantapur have this prolonged no-income cycle? Isn’t any other crop possible? Why think of short-duration crops only when groundnut sinks? “There has never really been a rabi crop in Anantapur where over two-thirds of the cultivable area is under shallow, gravel-like red soil.” says Mr. Malla Reddy. “Just 10 per cent of the cultivated area is black cotton soil. And a second crop on this has been rare to non-existent.”

This is also a district where irrigation actually declined from a peak of 17 per cent in the late 1980s to just about 11 per cent by the middle of this decade. “Besides,” says Mr. Malla Reddy, “the rainy season is between June and October. To attempt another crop you must sow by September. But the groundnut crop cycle lasts 110-115 days, all the way into October. Harvesting begins in November if you’ve sown in July. So the best you can do is to have a contingency crop when groundnut cannot be sown. The question of a regular second crop does not arise on 90 per cent of the land.”

There is a brief lull in Anantapur’s NREGS activity as late rains have arrived and farmers are scrambling to sow something. “You said the late rains will give a very limited yield, if any at all,” I ask. “Then why are you sowing now, especially groundnut, which will not succeed at this point?”

There are sheepish grins all around. Last year’s groundnut crop in Anantapur, destroyed by excess rain, was covered by nearly Rs.600-crore worth of insurance. The varying amounts they get from this will be their only, if limited, cushion for now.

For a people with no income from crops to speak of for 34 months (and with a limited number of days in the NREGS) this is a straw to clutch at. In effect, they are sowing a crop called Insurance 2009. In a terrible period, it just might give them some respite. At least until — and if — the kharif of 2010 brings them an income in January 2011.

Drought of justice, flood of funds

15 Aug

P. Sainath in The Hindu

Ask for expansion of the NREGS, universal access to the PDS, more spending on health and education — and there’s no money. But there’s enough to give away to the corporate world in concessions.

Sure, August is proving an unusual month. But what an extraordinary one July was! We celebrated the delivery of the cheapest car in the world and the costliest tur dal in our history within the same 31 days. And it took some work to get there. The price of tur dal was around Rs. 34 a kilogram just after the 2004 elections, Rs. 54 before the 2009 polls, Rs. 62 just after and, now at over Rs. 90, bids for three-figure status.

The euphoria of July also saw Montek Singh Ahluwalia declare that the “worst is behind us.” (Though it must be conceded that he said that even in June and, possibly, earlier.) That’s good. I only wish he had told us when the worst was upon us. It would have been nice to know. Otherwise, it gets hard to appreciate improvement.

As a matter of fact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar suggest that the worst could be ahead of us. And they don’t mean the swine flu. Both appear to have written off much of the kharif crop. They advise us to buckle up for a further rise in food prices due to the drought they now say affects 177 districts. That they’ve thrown in the towel on the kharif crop is evident in their calling for a more efficient planning of the rabi. Yet, the government had two months during which it could have opted for compensatory production of foodgrain in regions getting relatively better rainfall. But there was no effort at monsoon management.

Even today, there are very useful things that could be done to counter the worst ahead. A positive step taken by the Rural Development Ministry now allows small but vital assets like farm ponds to be created on the lands of farmers through the NREGS. A pond on every farm should be the objective of every government. (Incidentally, this would help hugely with the rabi season. It would also ease the hostility of quite a few farmers towards the NREGS.) A massive expansion of the NREGS will also help cushion the lakhs of labourers struggling to find work and devastated by rising food costs. But it would call for throwing out the entirely destructive 100-days-per-household limit on work under the scheme. With the Prime Minister calling for anti-drought measures on “a war footing,” this should be the time to do it.

The price-rise-due-to-drought warning is a fraud. Of course, a drought and major crop failure will push up prices further. But prices were steadily rising for five years since the 2004 elections, long before a drought. Take the years between 2004 and 2008 when you had some good monsoons. And more than one year in which we claimed “record production” of foodgrain. The price of rice went up 46 per cent, of wheat by over 62 per cent, atta 55 per cent, salt 42 per cent and more. By March 2008, the average increase in the prices of such items was already well over 40 per cent. Then, they rose again till a little before the 2009 polls. And have risen dramatically in the past three months.

The Agriculture Minister appears to have figured out that the stunning rise in the price of pulses may have little to do with drought. “There is no reason,” he finds, “for prices to rise in this fashion merely on a supply-demand gap.” He then goes on to find a valid reason: “blackmarketing or hoarding.” But remains silent on forward trading in agricultural commodities. Many senior Ministers have long maintained that “there is no evidence” that speculation related to forward trading has had any impact on food prices. (The ban on trading in wheat futures was lifted even before the results of the 2009 polls were announced in May. And existing bans on other items have been challenged in interpretation.)

The price rise since 2004 could be the highest for any period in the country barring perhaps the pre-Emergency period. For the media, of course, July was far more interesting for the political price in Parliament over the gas war between the Ambani brothers. When these two barons brawl, governments can fall. Also, how could atta be more interesting than airline tickets (the prices of which fell dramatically over several years)? Food prices might have gone up but airline travel costs went down and those are the prices that mattered.

So the price of aviation turbine fuel became a far more to-be-covered thing as private airlines threatened a strike demanding public money bailouts. At the time of writing, it appears the government will try and make things cheaper for them. These airline owners include some associated with the IPL, which got crores of rupees worth of tax write-offs last year. Maharashtra waived entertainment tax on the IPL. And with so many games held in Mumbai that proved a bonanza for the barons paid for by the public.

There’s always money for the Big Guys. Take a look at the budget and the “Revenues foregone under the central tax system.” The estimate of revenues foregone from corporate revenues in 2008-09 is Rs. 68,914 crore. ( By contrast, the NREGS covering tens of millions of impoverished human beings gets Rs. 39,100 crore in the 2009-10 budget.

Remember the great loan waiver of 2008, that historic write-off of the loans of indebted farmers? Recall the editorials whining about ‘fiscal imprudence?’ That was a one-time, one-off waiver covering countless millions of farmers and was claimed to touch Rs. 70,000 crore. But over Rs. 130,000 crore (in direct taxes) has been doled out in concessions in just two budgets to a tiny gaggle of merchants hogging at the public trough. Without a whimper of protest in the media. Imagine what budget giveaways to corporates since 1991 would total. We’d be talking trillions of rupees.

Imagine if we were able to calculate what the corporate mob has gained in terms of revenue foregone in indirect taxes. Those would be much higher and would mostly swell the corporate kitty for the simple reason that producers rarely pass on these gains to consumers. Let’s take only what the budget tells us (Annexure 12, Table 12, p.58). Income foregone in 2007-08 due to direct tax concessions was Rs. 62,199 crore. That foregone on excise duty was Rs. 87,468 crore. And on customs duty Rs. 1,53,593 crore. That adds up to Rs. 3,03,260 crore. Even if we drop export credit from this, it comes to well over Rs. 200,000 crore. For 2008-09, that figure would be over Rs. 300,000 crore. That is a very conservative estimate. It does not include all manner of subsidies and rate cuts and other freebies to the corporate sector. But it’s big enough.

Simply put, the corporate world has grabbed concessions in just two years that total more than seven times the ‘fiscally imprudent’ farm loan waiver. In fact, it means that on average we have been feeding the corporate world close to Rs. 700 crore every day in those two years. Imagine calculating what this figure would be, in total, since 1991. (Er.., what’s the word for the bracket above ‘trillion?’) Ask for an expansion of the NREGS, seek universal access to the PDS, plead for more spending on public health and education — and there’s no money. Yet, there’s enough to give away nearly Rs. 30 crore an hour to the corporate world in concessions.

If Indian corporates saw their net profits rise in April-June this year, despite gloom and doom around them, there’s a reason. All that feeding frenzy at the public trough. The same quarter saw 1.7 lakh organised sector jobs lost in the very modest estimate of the Labour Ministry. That’s not counting the 15 lakh jobs said to have been lost in just the export sector between September and April by the then Commerce Secretary.

And now comes the drought. A convenient villain to hang all our man-made distress on — and sure to oblige by adding greatly to that distress. A huge fall in farm incomes is in the offing. If the government wants to act on a war footing, it could start with a serious expansion of the NREGS (about the only lifejacket people in districts like Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh have at this point, for instance).

It could launch, among many other things, the pond-in-every-farm programme. It could restructure farm loan schedules. It could start getting the idea of monsoon management into its thinking. It could curb forward trading-linked speculation that was driving one of our worst price rises in history long before the drought was on the horizon. And it could declare universal access to the PDS. That cost could probably be easily covered by, say, cancelling the dessert from the menu of the unending corporate free lunch in this country.

Taking goals of NREGA-I forward

14 Aug

Mihir Shahin The Hindu

Envisioning NREGA-II is important to realise the unfulfilled dreams of NREGA-I, which has failed thus far to break free of the shackles of a debilitating past.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) promises a revolutionary demand-driven, people-centred development programme. Planning, implementation and social audit by gram sabhas and gram panchayats can engender millions of sustainable livelihoods following initial rounds of wage employment. But NREGA-I has had to battle against the legacy of an ignominious past. Rural development programmes over the last 60 years have been dependent on the munificence of the state . They have been implemented top-down, using labour-displacing machines and contractors who have customarily run roughshod over basic human rights.

NREGA is poised to change all that. And there is no doubt that its promise has charged the hearts and minds of the rural poor with unprecedented hopes and expectations. But the first three years of the programme have also shown that NREGA suffers from many ills — leakages and delays in wage payments, non-payment of statutory minimum wages, work only for an average of 50 days per annum as against the promised 100 days, fudged muster rolls, few durable assets and even fewer sustainable livelihoods.

Envisioning NREGA-II is important to realise the unfulfilled dreams of NREGA-I, which has failed thus far to break free of the shackles of a debilitating past. At least seven key elements need to characterise NREGA-II. One, strengthening the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) by providing them requisite technical and social human resource so that plans can be made and implemented genuinely bottom-up. Without a cadre of social mobilisers or lok sewaks (at least one in every village), it is difficult to convert NREGA into a truly demand-driven programme, where works are undertaken in response to the needs and aspirations of a fully aware citizenry. Otherwise, the current practice of works being imposed from above will continue unchecked. And without much greater technical support to the PRIs, it will be hard to stop the backdoor entry of contractors.

Two, there needs to be a renewed focus on improving the productivity of agriculture and convergence to engender allied sustainable livelihoods. NREGA is not the usual run-of-the-mill relief and welfare programme of the past. It is not merely about transferring cash to people in distress. It is about creating durable assets that will ultimately lead to a reduced dependence of people on NREGA. The percentage of agricultural labour households in India who own land is around 50 in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, 60 in Orissa and Uttar Pradesh and over 70 in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. And if we focus on Adivasis, the proportion shoots up to as high as 76-87 per cent in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Millions of our small and marginal farmers are forced to work under NREGA because the productivity of their own farms is too low to make ends meet. NREGA will become really powerful when it helps to rebuild this decimated productivity of small farms and allows these people to return to full-time farming, thereby also reducing the load on NREGA.

What would accelerate this strengthening of small and marginal farming is the proposal to allow assets creation through NREGA on farmers’ lands. This is element three of NREGA-II and would help the poorest who constitute 80 per cent of farmers in India. It is not entirely clear why certain sections of civil society are opposed to this idea, which will also mitigate the apparent conflict perceived by some Gandhians between small farmers and NREGA. Especially given the just demand for extending the work guarantee of 100 days to every person (as promised in the Congress manifesto), there is need to extend the scope of NREGA to small and marginal farmers’ lands. This remarkably inclusive provision can potentially transform Indian agriculture, which is crying out for greater public investment.

Apparently there is an apprehension that if work is allowed on poor farmers’ lands, the provision will be misused by powerful rich farmers in the village. Let me begin by stating that Magsaysay award winner Deep Joshi believes that NREGA should actually be used for assets creation on all lands, much as in a watershed programme, so that plans can be made and implemented on a watershed basis. I disagree with him only because I feel priority must be given to the poor. But I fail to understand opposition to work on farms of the poor themselves. Misuse of NREGA provisions is a genuine fear but that should be addressed with element four of NREGA-II — strengthening social audit.

Here we have two possible ways forward, what I call MKSS-I and MKSS-II. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) blazed the trail of social audit in Rajasthan. MKSS-I, a process that has been fraught with violent opposition from vested interests, and by the MKSS’ own admission, has been less than successful. MKSS-II refers to the social audit pro-actively promoted by the government of Andhra Pradesh and guided by the MKSS that has achieved unprecedented success. However, this remains a predominantly top-down approach with relatively weak roots. What we need to do is to combine the strengths of MKSS-I with those of MKSS-II, because social audit is undoubtedly the weakest link of NREGA so far, even though it was hailed initially as its most attractive differentia specifica. Pramathesh Ambasta, National Coordinator, Civil Society Consortium on NREGA, is working on a blueprint of a National Authority for NREGA, which should become a matter of serious reflection and debate if we are to strengthen social audit, evaluation and grievance redress, by making them independent of the implementing agency.

Element five has to be more of creative use of information technology (IT), which can greatly strengthen social audit and reduce chances of fraud and leakage. As in Andhra Pradesh, computer systems need to be tightly integrated end-to-end so that any work registered in the system is alive, status-visible and amenable to tracking. Delays at any stage can thus be immediately identified and corrected. The system keeps track of the work from the day the work-ID is generated and flags delays in the payment cycle as soon as they occur. Because the network secures all levels from the ground up to the State headquarters and data are transparently and immediately available on the website, a delay at any stage is instantly noticed by the monitoring system. Free availability of this information on the website also facilitates public scrutiny, greater transparency and better social audit.

IT has one more new dimension. Ever since it was decided to make payments only through banks and post offices, NREGA-I has run into serious trouble caused by delays and corruption in payments. Workers, especially in remote rural India, find it very hard to travel long distances to get money. This promotes a nightmarish variety of malpractices. It is now imperative that we roll out the banking correspondent model using handheld computer devices and mobile phones to all gram panchayats in India by the end of the Eleventh Plan period. The government needs to commit the support required to make this happen in a time-bound manner to achieve unprecedented financial inclusion on the doorstep for our poorest people living in distant hinterlands. The demand-driven, pro-poor unique ID project can play a key role in this regard and also greatly benefit from the demand created by this exercise.

Element six of NREGA-II is a reformed schedule of rates (SoRs). The commitment to pay real (indexed to inflation) wages of Rs.100 a day can never be fulfilled if we continue to use antediluvian SoRs that were meant to serve the “contractor-machine raj.” Using these rates will inevitably underpay labour, especially women. We need gender, ecology and labour-capacity sensitive SoRs that are themselves indexed to the real minimum wage, undergoing revisions with each revision in the statutory wage. Otherwise, complaints of underpaid labour will never cease.

Finally, element seven — the role of civil society, which is crucial in making NREGA realise its potential. Whether it is grass-roots activists assisting PRIs in social mobilisation, developmental NGOs building capacities of panchayats and supporting them in planning and implementing NREGA works, academic institutions helping to improve the standards of evaluation or eminent citizens acting as ombudsmen, there is an urgent need to mandate civil society action in strengthening NREGA. On its part, civil society needs to adopt a strategy of dialogue and support to make NREGA a success. Revamped and revitalised CAPART (Council for People’s Action and Rural Technology) and NIRD (National Institute of Rural Development) based on vibrant partnerships with civil society could help facilitate this change.

Each of these seven elements was part of the original NREGA vision. What NREGA-II will do is to place renewed emphasis on key aspects of this vision and build new strategies to help the programme realise its true potential. It is good that the Ministry of Rural Development is engaging in detailed discussions with various stakeholders as also the Central Employment Guarantee Council before unfurling the NREGA-II blueprint.

(The writer is Member, Planning Commission. Views expressed are personal.)


10 Mar

Cover Story

Battle for work
NREGA survey 2008
Flaws in the system
Alternative to migration
What works against women
Banned but still there
All is not well with the wells
Accounts of corruption
Pati experience
Rajasthan way ahead
A scene from the South

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