Opinion » Lead

Updated: February 15, 2013 00:16 IST

Saving the Railways, for the aam aadmi

K. Balakesari
Comment (30)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The government must stop tinkering with this public service provider in the name of coalition dharma. There should be a freeze on adding passenger trains and the focus must shift to improving existing services.

A Railway Minister is sacked midway through the budget session of Parliament, a rather bizarre first even for the 160-year-old rail network. An information website, shows that at any given moment, not more than 60 per cent of the trains are running on time. These two seemingly related, yet unconnected, scenarios have one common factor: the aam aadmi. In the first case, the Minister’s well intentioned move to raise lower class passenger fares was seen by the powers that be as blatantly anti-aam aadmi. The second is the ultimate manifestation of a policy of relentless proliferation of train services each year in the name of helping the aam aadmi, without adequate line and terminal capacity and supporting infrastructure, leading to an overstrained system. During the last decade, the number of new train services announced during each budget varied from 46 to 105 under four different Railway Ministers. This excludes frequencies of trains which were increased, and extensions of existing services.

Calculating punctuality

More than most other sectors, many initiatives and decisions taken (or not taken) by the Railways are supposedly for the benefit of the aam aadmi, the proverbial common man. This focus is unavoidable as the Railways remain the cheapest, yet fastest, mode of travel for the country’s millions. However some of these measures have exactly the opposite effect in the long run. In the case of the burgeoning additional train services, even a minor incident has a cascading effect on the punctuality of a large number of trains, inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers. Punctuality at intermediate stations is almost non-existent. The Railways’ own statistics of punctuality put the figure usually above 90 per cent. This is because the Railways reckon punctuality based on the right time of arrival at the destination, irrespective of how late a train is in between, whereas the website shows the actual “instantaneous” position. To achieve destination punctuality, the running schedule is often padded up with extra time towards the end of the journey. This in effect eats into line capacity.

Railways in general and Indian Railways (IR) in particular, because of its large public service footprint and load of unremunerative projects, are inherently “unbalanced” financially. Long gestation periods of projects, their capital intensive nature and time lag between investment and generation of revenue make substantial budgetary support from the government unavoidable. The usual advice to IR to generate revenues by monetising “surplus” land or selling off scrap is that much pie in the sky — the revenue inflow from such sources is at best sporadic, unpredictable, process-ridden, and, ultimately, self-limiting. Whereas the main items of expenditure — staff and fuel/energy costs — often vary almost instantaneously, the only immediate means available to even partially offset them is an increase in fares or freight tariff.

Behind ‘no fare increase’

No one asks a fruit seller whether an apple that cost only Rs.20 till yesterday and now being sold at Rs.30 will taste sweeter. No one expects the duration of power cuts to reduce even if the power tariff is doubled overnight. Such increases are taken in their stride as the natural consequence of inflation, rise in input costs or market forces. But the moment the Railways increase the fares even nominally, the demand or expectation is for “additional facilities.” The Railways themselves are to blame to a large extent for nurturing such unreasonable expectations, keeping fares unchanged over long periods, ostensibly in the interest of the aam aadmi. Instead, freight tariffs are increased, either directly or by indirect levies, to compensate the loss on the passenger front. This increases transportation costs of essential commodities, pushing up prices affecting the aam aadmi over a wider population. It is this shifting of the burden from the actual rail users to the society at large that is applauded in Parliament with loud thumping of desks whenever a Railway Minister heroically announces “no fare increase.” While some cross-subsidisation is unavoidable in the Indian context, prolonged suppression of passenger fares also imposes costs on the society. The setting up of an independent Railway Tariff Regulatory Authority, hinted at in the last budget, should hopefully free the Railways from the politics of fare and freight tariff fixing, pun unintended.

Administrative costs

The “unbalance” is also systemic. IR is perhaps the only railway system in the world that still has its own full-fledged medical, security and manufacturing establishments. Consequently, it carries a disproportionately heavy burden of administrative costs. There are more security personnel (60,000) and medical staff (57,000) than train drivers (36,000) apart from 44,000 in the Railways’ functioning production units. This is not to belittle the contributions of these sectors but to stress that with its present organisational structure, the staff costs are disproportionately high. Added to this is the decadal onslaught of the Pay Commission that delivers a virtual body blow to Railway finances. The last (Sixth) Pay Commission added about Rs.13,000 crore to the annual wage bill, representing a 50 per cent hike during 2008-09.

Fine. So, why don’t the Railways shed the off-line activities and get out of the ambit of the Pay Commission by appropriate restructuring? More easily said than done. At least four Expert Committees in the last two decades have recommended some form of reorganisation, away from the monolithic bureaucracy of today. But to expect the Railways themselves to initiate any basic structural change is like asking a man to voluntarily jump off a cliff. The initiative or push for such change has to come from outside. And any such change is bound to be painful and even disruptive for a period, and a major political gamble. But given the realities of coalition politics of the day, it is highly unlikely that any government at the centre in the foreseeable future will have the stomach to even attempt such a major initiative.

What are the implications of the status quo to the aam aadmi? First, there is only so much that one can expect, in terms of quality of service, from a monolithic bureaucratically structured entity operating as a virtual monopoly in the railway sector. This is not a reflection on the quality or commitment of a majority of railway personnel but has a lot to do with the incentives driving a form of organisation that is designed for stability, is precedent-driven, risk-averse and focused on vertical, functional silos.

Freight corridor opportunity

Second, as structured at present, heavy staff costs buck the generation of internal resources. The Railway Budget 2012-13 proposed an outlay of Rs.7.35 lakh crore during the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) of which the major share of funding of Rs.2.5 lakh crore (34 per cent) is through gross budgetary support (GBS), followed by Rs.2.18 lakh crore through Extra Budgetary Resources (mainly commercial borrowings), Rs.1.99 lakh crore through internal resource generation (IRG) and the balance from other sources. The Plan is thus heavily dependent on GBS and costly commercial borrowings. Under the circumstances, adequate and consistent budgetary support becomes a necessity, not an option. It however needs to be remembered that this funding source (GBS) has myriad alternative uses in other crucial sectors affecting the aam aadmi, such as health and education.

What are the immediate prospects? There is a window of opportunity presented by the two Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) projects which are already in progress, that can boost the freight earnings substantially and release capacity in the existing trunk routes. It is of utmost importance to complete these projects and make them operational before the effects of the next Pay Commission deal a near-fatal blow to the Railways’ finances around 2017-18. In the interim, no additional passenger train services should be introduced.

For the Railways it is back to basics. While it is necessary to dream about and plan for bullet trains whizzing past at over 300 km/hour, it is useful to remember the lament of an “aam aadmi” almost a century ago:

“During the whole journey, not once was the compartment swept or cleaned. The closet was also not cleaned during the journey. No water in tank. The return journey was no better. The compartment itself was evil looking…..It was pestilentially dirty” — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, describing a train journey in September 1917.

The daily concerns of today’s aam aadmi remain unchanged. The period of moratorium on additional passenger train services should be utilised to pull up the quality of basic services offered to the aam aadmi in terms of safety, punctuality, cleanliness and courtesy.

As for the political establishment in general and the highest levels of the government in particular, here are a few suggestions: Stop tinkering with the Railways in the name of “coalition dharma”; treat it on a par with the “Big Four” — Home, Finance, Defence and External Affairs; evolve a National Railway Policy with consensus across the political spectrum and a long-term common minimum growth plan spanning at least 10 to 15 years, that will be binding irrespective of who or which party or combination is in power.

A climate of drift, sudden policy switches and adhocism only serve to keep a great institution far below its true potential. And that perhaps is the biggest disservice that can be meted out to the nation’s aam aadmi.

(K. Balakesari is Former Member Staff/Railway Board. Email:

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the author is trying to portray that if the prices are increased constantly it will do good. what a naive assumption.
1.the officials and families of railways travel in a/c bogies free of cost. assume 10 lakh employees and their families what a gross blindness of author.STOP FREE RIDING
whenever a higher official wants to go he takes a whole train together utter waste of money
2.train services every where in world are subsidized, because it is a public good. if you want to make it privatized you can do so.
3.what about the BLACK TICKETS to put euphemistically tatkal tickets looting the passengers
4.increase the train lanes, instead of a 8 laner road triple or four way rail lines are much better

from:  jview
Posted on: Feb 16, 2013 at 16:53 IST

It is a pity that the railways calls trains which cover a paltry 55 kms per hour as 'Superfast'. Almost invariably they do not cover even that much. For example, trains between Chennai and Bangalore take almost 7 to 71/2 hrs and still we have to shell out superfast charges.
Secondly, the reserved coaches in this sector in day trains have become a joke as it is packed like sardines with people holding either w/l tickets or just ordinary tickets. How can the Railways do all this?
Thirdly, there are certain day trains which have only sleeper coaches as reserved compartments for ex. Cholan Express between Chennai Egmore and Tiruchirappali via the main line.
May be we have to file PILs to prevent all these immmoral practices.

from:  Raman
Posted on: Feb 16, 2013 at 16:25 IST

I think revamping the IRCTC website must be a priority. It looks
embarrassingly pathetic, and is an agony to work with.

from:  Manasa
Posted on: Feb 16, 2013 at 11:00 IST

The Author has rightly pointed out the deficiencies of the Indian
Railways, rather than cheep transport, India needs education and medical
facilities, Which empower people to have better standard of living. Why
does people need cheep Travel facilities? Its not a basic human need.
Cheep travel makes people travel unnecessary across the country.

from:  Ram Kiran
Posted on: Feb 16, 2013 at 08:15 IST

Informative article. IR can very well be made one of 'Navaratnas'.
Increase the ticket fare justifiably. Freeze introduction of new
trains for another three years. Stop extending of train services on
either side. No more new lines for another 2-3 years. Assess the
financial outlay of each division taking into account the
ongoing/pending projects. Give priority to the most revenue generating
lines. Let the IR raise the resources through public deposits or bonds
redeemable after 10 years.Or borrow from government on the lines of
its support to commercial banks in augmenting its capital.Devise
foolproof hi-tech system to plug ticket-less travelling to increase
the revenue. Introduce 'facility fee' if anyone stays inside the
station premises beyond three hours.Spend more on passenger amenities
; replace the rickety coaches, spruce up the compartments and remove
the image of IR as 'dirty coaches/filthy compartments'.IR has the
potential to make a turnaround on its own less the politicians.

Posted on: Feb 16, 2013 at 07:51 IST

A very informative and suggestion oriented article. One thing I cannot understand. The Indian Railways were employing 17 lakhs of employees and officers put together in the fifties. But the number of trains were far less in those days. The trains operated to day have increased leaps and bounds but at the same time the staff strength had been reduced by about 2 lakhs to 3 lakhs. The unnecessary creation of 8 more zones which have been done more on political and regional considerations rather than administrative reasons The author has clearly pointed out the fallacy of increasing the freight charges thereby increasing the burden on the entire society without adding a paise on passenger fares for the last 4 years. There is a cue and cry about inadequate staff in operating commercial and train examining areas Tambaram car shed is one example

from:  ramu
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 17:01 IST

As pointed out indian railway need to work on the basic at first ,clearly pointed by author.Indian politics is not allowing this happened at ,so we need to work on this gradually for keeping long term plan.Not only each individual should work for the betterment,I have seen people just throw waste in the train,to minimize the cost occur in cleaning or medical facility we need to take care of these things.I am hoping that in this railway budget government come up with some tuff budget since this time time we have railway minister from government side not from trinmool congress!

from:  suraj kumar jha
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 16:46 IST

The author has pointed out about Manufacturing coming under IR. The Manufacturing division has not made advancements in Research and have not modernized themselves. The Metro rails all over the country are importing from countries like Korea. The author has written Indian Railways is 160 years old and we should have more capablity maturity. Ideally, we should be in the forefront of Rail industry exporting consulting services, research, rails and engines. This is the result of policies of populist politicians. If we don't make corrections, we may have to pay more price later.

from:  Rajesh
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 15:03 IST

The observation of how increase in freight charges leads to inflation
-- finally passing the burden on to the aam aadmi after all -- is very

But indeed, we do need more trains, though they need to be very
strategically placed!

But in my experience the general cleanliness of compartments has
improved over the years. In particular, water has always been
available during my recent journeys. This is not to say there isn't
any need to improve on these counts.

from:  Srikant Sekhar
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 14:58 IST

One of the world ‘s largest railways,the Indian railways is also known for its failure to provide adequate quality transport services to the public. Monetarily poor ,technically weak, overly bureaucratized Indian Railways need an immediate revamp. De politicization of this department and bringing in managerial expertise is essential for it to perform like the modern day railway services that exists elsewhere. Privatization where ever necessary should not be rule out to achieve this goal.

from:  sushmita D
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 14:50 IST

The author is quite right to insist that focus must be on improving existing services. It is a nightmare to travel by IR. Three most essential aspects, punctuality, hygiene, have become casualty. Passenger amenities even in Rajdhani trains are 'worse' & quality of food is not even passable. The AC unit is faulty adding to the discomfort. If the conditions are so bad in prestigious trains, one can imagine the plight of passengers in other trains. IR always cite load/traffic as cause for improper facilities. When they cannot cater to the public needs, why then is the need to add more trains. IR must function as a commercial enterprise & not like municipalities. IR must not add new trains or start new routes to satisfy the politicians who want popularity at its cost. RM must have humility to admit lack of expertise & even he should not tinker with the functioning of CRB & members. It is a shame that even after such long years, travel by IR is not a pleasant experience.

from:  SR Sankaran
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 14:46 IST

Raising the lower class passenger fares is unconscionable, proliferating more trains and extension of existing services alone dosen't suffice, as insinuated by the author there should be an accord within the government to uproot the problems.

from:  karthik
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 14:39 IST

The article gives the feel of the tight fist situation but there is at the same time need to introduce the private parties in the system to improve the quality. The low fare is the only reason why Railways is able to sustain and flourish in spite of dirty coaches in few trains and substandard food by the station and pantry car vendors.
The Ministry must look into the situation and pay heed to the situation being faced by the life-line of nation which in itself needs a life line to sustain.
The situations can be improved if we as passengers become more vigil and complaint about the problem faced during the journey and the railways administration take care of its each customer without any discrimination.India now is the most significant of economies of world and it is necessary for Railways to raise standard of travel.

from:  Mayank S
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 14:08 IST

Railway journey used to be my childhood dream for roaming around the
country to quench the thirst job and eye.My dream came true as soon as
I completed the minimum basic requirement of job and started
travelling in train general compartment. It is to be pyramidal
structure inside the compartment no where place to keep feet on the
floor whether it is sitting , gallery or toilet(it is true today as
shown by AAJ TAK new channel).Now imagine a journey for 24 to 30 hrs
long,pathetic situation ,no words to explain.But by that time all
these words were not there in my mind as I used to be in hurry to
complete the journey and appear in the exam.
There is almost same situation in sleeper class also where safety and
security of passengers and their luggage is on the back foot. Today
the railway ministry only concerned about the increasing of number of
trains not adding the quality in rail service.The hiding monster for
revenue can be seen at several places as 120 days reservation

from:  avinesh
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 13:47 IST

No new trains is an incorrect solution - ask any of the millions
packed worse than sardines in a can in Mumbai's locals.

what we need to remove political interference in railways operations
(trains and zones cant be decided basis of politics), Reduction in
Manpower and breaking the railways into multiple agencies such as one
for rail services, others for RPF, etc and bringing in competition in
terms of private players - Tendering slots for Passenger trains to be
run by private players on select routes - they might introduce fancier

from:  Swapnil
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 13:05 IST

A very good article. More than a decade back Rakesh Mohan committee
made excellent recommendations towards corporotisation and
privatisation. I think. despite, some hitches faced by some, BSNL is
doing a better job than the previous Department of Telecom. First the
railway Board is a self breeding organistaion and therefore resists
everything. Politician ministers who are birds of passage treat Rlys.
as a way of patronising contractor friends. Despite Left not being a
part of UPA II, it is shackled to the past dirigisme regime.
Spectrum or for that matter roads are only pathways so are Rail
tracks. They should licence private players to operate train services
, since by competition consumer can hope to get really punctual
clean, hygienic travel. Finally, any number of good articles may be
written, I have no hope of railways ever improving whichever party or
combination come to power in 2014 and as long as railway management
remains in the hands of an incestuous service as the IAS

from:  R.Sundaram
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 12:17 IST

Freezing of new train services will be a wrong decision and will be a disadvantage to
Aam admis of states outside West Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu whose ministers
heading Rlway Ministry have helped their own states to lay uneconomic lines and
non profit yielding train routes. The reason for the sorry state of railways is only such
decisions coupled with political decisions not to increase fares. Balanced development
with new lines on economic routes and stopping all nonprofit routes will help Rlwys
headed by ministers outside these 3 states.

from:  MVJRao
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 12:10 IST

to announce a train is easy for politicians, but this requires lots of
work, infrastructure to maintain- guard, drivers ticket checking staff
maintenance staff path and coaches engines. In our trains there are few
general coaches, aam admi is forced to travel like cattle will railway
authorities make adequate arrangements for aam admi.

from:  vdsharma
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 11:51 IST

While I laud your vision for the betterment of IR, I disagree on
freezing the new services and extensions. Population is ever increasing
in our large Country. To the alarming rates of migration and travel,new
services and extensions of trains is a must.

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 11:37 IST

It is an easy task to give a long lecture to the Indian Railways.
There is little ministerial vision and leadership, laying of
priorities. There is hardly any attempt to price the services
properly. For example, in advanced countries, only apssengers are
allowed into the platforms. Here virtually a large crowd goes for
send off. The price of a platform ticket is just Rs. 5. Make it Rs.
10 if you want to curb the crowd. The trains connecting metros are
running at the same average speed in the last six decades. They have
not been speeded up. But our ministers and planners talk of bullet
trains! What a poor 'priorities being fixed. Making oit a company or
whatever reformist measures, these can be attempted from the existing
mechanism. Why then wait for change? It is easy to talk of
administrative costs and pay commission load but there is need for
human resources. Instead reward increased productivity. It is
dangerous to reduce staff without taking commensurate steps.

from:  s subramanyan
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 11:32 IST

We as citizens should adhere to some basic civic sense. Spitting, throwing garbage is rampant, we as travellers, should ensure cleanliness of the platforms and railway coaches.
Blaming railways for our poor behaviour is not acceptable

from:  Anand V
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 11:25 IST

The Railways need to be privatised. While no more additional
trains need to be added. There are many new trains in these parts
which are not utilised fully. Let us scrap them . It is time we
rationalised the trains being run. Laloo Yadav, the milkman, made
al new trains run from Patna. Mamtha Banerjeee,the street fighter,
made all new trains run from Howrah/Sealdah. Let us scrap them
and cover places which need them badly. The railway workers
have taken their jobs lightly (except drivers and guards) and do
not perform their jobs properly. Sack them. Attendants in coaches
just go to sleep at 10 pm and get up at 6 am and yet take their
compensatory offs. If they are questioned they threaten to go on
strike. One of the best examples is the Railway Claims office in
Gorakhpur where no work is ever done.Even the top boss is
scared to ask the employees any questions. Lakhs of rupees
worth of claims are lying unprocessed. Meanwhile goods are lost
in transit merrily.

from:  S N IYER
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 10:55 IST

The rot in this system is beyond repair. The was rot in the Public section units and we pumped tons of money to repair calling them sick units and they remained sick the money spent is wasted. This practice still continuing in many nonviable Public sector companies. Thanks to liberalization we had reduced pumping money into these companies. Indian Railways is no better. Had the railway been privatized at lease partially in the 1990s along with Airline privatization the situation would have been little better by now. We missed that chance. We could do even now but its difficult because of political issues.

The best solution is to ask the MNC companies to partner with Indian big copoprates (TATAs, Birlas etc.) with 100% FDI to set up a brand new train tracks between major cities (to start with) and allow them to run their own train services. Like to see TATA rail services or Reliance Express train services etc between major cities.

from:  Sakthi
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 09:57 IST

The article was excellent and the author made it clear,the
challenges which IR faces,due to the so-called Aam Aadmi service they
claims to perform.As the author clearly mentioned Is Aam Aadmi really
benefiting by any of those policies.Not increasing the fare when the
whole economy is suffering from inflation purposely for Aam Aadmi
image for the Government is of no logic.It will be dumping the railway
into further crisis,depriving it from performing basic maintainance
and servic improvement.As for now IR is forgetting the basics of every
service:Customer satisfaction,by not providing a clean,punctual

from:  Mahesh S Babu
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 08:53 IST

Shame ! railway continue to be unhygienic even after the Colonial
English rule is over.For saving railways this intelligent article &
its direction is commendable. It raises essential pitfalls &
indirectly points out how ex-ministers like Mamta misused railways and
remained absent at accident sites. Put railway service = selling of a
costly apple. You fail to see if the common man can buy an apple or
not ? National Peoples friendly railway policy is a must for holistic
inclusive growth. Problem starts when all policies are profit centered
and there is no policy link to save the money in the pockets of
majority people to enjoy & use railways. At times this Public service
`hijacked` by rulers to become more powerful at the cost of commons.
Ministers with a clear code on conduct should stop behaving like black
market agents by collecting in the name of `Kumbh Surcharge` but are
unable to ensure medical-ambulance presence at the disaster sites.
Such railway ministers should be punished.

from:  Rakesh Manchanda
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 08:35 IST

"There should be a freeze on adding passenger trains and the focus
must shift to improving existing services."
Dear Author,
With all due respect to the larger picture you have in mind, if you ever lived in a city with a single train connectivity and a 100% load factor on that train through out the year, in spite of having one of the longest trains (I think about 18-19 bogies)... and being the lifeline of two districts, you would only wish that the train moved,
however much it is delayed.

from:  Sriram Bhupathiraju
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 08:25 IST

(1) Let us accept that the Indian Railways (IR) have been left
financially weak as they were under the charge of a minister belonging
to the Trinamool Congress who had very impractical and funny ideas of
protecting interests of the common man. Fortunately, now we have a
minister who most probably has realized the damage done to the railway
finances. Hopefully he would make all efforts to improve the same. (2)
About quality of service, particularly punctuality and cleanliness in
trains, there is so such to done to improve it but railway staff are
not motivated enough to provide good service. (3) IR have to modernize
management practices, review their Human resources (training and
recruitment) policy, and above all, use information technology far
more effectively and productively. (4) If IR is converted into a
government company, the Railway budget can be done away with. It will
also help the government to raise funds for rapid modernization and
lead to far better audit compliances.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 08:23 IST

Perhaps Railways is the only organization which had been a subject of complete irrational decisions. Every budget had hurt it with popular measures meant only for vote-bank politics. Ideally there should have been a series of discussions in the media much prior to the budget so that the citizens gets a chance to present their difficulties and find out remedial measures. This will give an opportunity to the media to do a bit for the masses apart from their daily analysis of innumerable miseries!!

from:  Viswanath C
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 05:35 IST

How govt. will control corruption in railways ?
RCF kapurthala is famous for corruption and sub std coach productions.
Their quality doesnt stand even in india usage-leave alone standing in international competition.
Railways hospitals are famous for corruption, store and accounts are sensitive zones.

from:  Chamaan Malhotra
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 04:12 IST

governments should stop doing business.
Today, in the world a distance between any two cities like hyderabad, mumbai,
bangalore and chennai, can be covered in 2 hrs,
The difference mobile phones, internet is doing to business, imagine what could be
possible if such trains are available in india,
The indian railways if it cannot make the investment should allow fdi into these
routes, let them take royalties.
Bringing efficencies into railways, where we may travel without cockroaches n rats,
n stinking bathrooms, yet on time,
We may actually reduce some of the traffic on airways too.

from:  srivani
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 03:31 IST
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