Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 25, 2013 01:21 IST

The unempowered Asian

Pulapre Balakrishnan
Comment (40)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Despite overtaking Japan as the third largest economy, India has lost its leadership role in the continent because, unlike its eastern neighbours, it has ignored its poor

India’s founding fathers had a clear idea where it was to stand in the comity of nations. They were quite sure that India’s place was in Asia. There was nothing parochial to this vision. It sprang from a certain understanding of world history and Asian culture. As they saw it, at the end of Second World War, almost all of Asia had been at the heel of the Europeans for close to two centuries. While acutely aware of this, they saw the sloughing-off of the colonial yoke as the mere beginning of a meaningful journey. The continent’s nation-builders set themselves the far more ambitious task of building an Asia so prosperous that it could provide a balance to western hegemony.

Seoul, an urban marvel

On a busman’s holiday to the East of us, an Indian economist sees that in the rest of Asia much of this grand vision has been realised. For instance, Seoul in its north-eastern extremity is an urban marvel. Its network of expressways, efficient public transport, pedestrian-friendly streets and glorious public services leave you in a state of shock and awe. To the naked eye there is no poverty visible on its streets, nor any great inequality. Instead, food stalls abound and everybody is gorging on their stuff while clutching at their Gucci bags when it is not their Samsung Android phone.

Having once been the champion of the Asian voice in the United Nations, India now languishes as its poor cousin. Its GDP per capita is pitifully low compared to that of the Asian powerhouses, the price of food too high in relation to capita income and the fruits of its much-vaunted high growth in recent years are poorly distributed. From having convened the Asian Relations Conference even before gaining independence to later inspiring Bandung, India has lost its leadership role mainly because it has been left behind in the race to develop the economy. The rest of Asia may admire India as the original home of some profound philosophies, but it is unlikely to capture their imagination as an economy.

This has less to do with the size and growth of India’s economy but to do with the fact that India is clearly out of line with one central aspect of the Asian development model which is the wide-spreading of the fruits of growth. India has by now overtaken Japan as the world’s third largest economy in purchasing-power-parity terms but the backlog of poverty in India is overwhelming even when the bar is set low. China does have high inequality but has far lower poverty levels than India. In any case, restricting ourselves to the income criterion misses an important element when it comes to evaluating the standard of living. Beyond higher per capita incomes, the economies of the east have a vast stock of well functioning public infrastructure. We refuse to acknowledge how important this is in enabling people to lead a dignified life.

Need for course correction

But has India lost the plot for all time? Not at all. However, we need to recognise how the rest of Asia has done it, and grasp the opportunity to make a course correction when required. At the core of the Asian model is the wide provision of health and education by the state. The human capital thus created contributes to high productivity growth which alone can drive growth in the long run. We can think of productivity growth as that source from which flow the two parallel currents that undergird a dynamic economy. On the one hand, it generates the demand needed to sustain growth and, on the other, releases the resources necessary to provision it. But human capital in the form of a healthy and educated populace is per se inadequate to the task of production. This requires physical infrastructure without which a population is powerless. Countless Indians are unable to improve their lot due to the paucity of electricity, water supply, transportation and sanitation.

From this point of view, the “economic reforms” launched in 1991 are limited in their scope. One can only remain sceptical of promises of “more reforms” that do not at the same time provide a road map for releasing the economy from the infrastructure constraint. All over the east, governments started out by creating human and physical capital in tandem, as either one is of not much use without the other. It is this strategy that yielded them the success of export-led growth. In Indian policy circles there is the tendency to construe the eastern experience as the inevitable outcome of maintaining openness to trade which India certainly did not do. But we did not build enough of the two types of capital necessary. By now the industrial-tariff rate in India is lower than in South Korea but growth has slowed considerably and we can see why. It is also significant that in the east, it is the state that actually built this infrastructure because the private sector cannot be expected to build it on so vast a scale.


Recognising the importance of physical infrastructure would alert us to what must constitute the core of the public discourse on the future of India. The political class speaks of “inclusion” and “empowerment” but does not walk this talk. It has confined itself to promulgating rights. These count for less than an abundant physical infrastructure in empowering the poor. The Right to Information Act may reveal important details of a road project, especially regarding finance, but it can do little to ensure that the road is built well, leave alone well-maintained. Their significance is close to that of the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution. While they are not without value, their role in economic empowerment is remote. On the other hand, the Directive Principles call upon the state to act as a facilitator but they are not justiciable. The current trend in Indian politics is for the political class to legislate more and more while withdrawing from building the public good that is physical infrastructure. It is important to understand why it persists with this strategy.

High inequality

First, legislating rights and resorting to populism with subsidies buy short-term gains. With political parties facing a five-year electoral cycle, it matters to them less that subsidies crowd out the public finances needed to create infrastructural assets. High inequality heightens the symbolic value of such fiscal transfers. To this extent, politics as practised in India today has a vested interest in the maintenance of inequality. Secondly, there is an aspect of physical infrastructure that gets less attention than it deserves. How much infrastructure we have is less important than how well we put it to use. So the benefits we may expect to flow from what we have built are only as good as the management of that which we have built. While this is true as much of privately owned as it is of public infrastructure it so happens that, almost everywhere in the world, the core physical infrastructure is in the public sector. Thus the infrastructural services that are generated depend upon the accountability enforced in the public sector.

This is by no means a battle lost. Anyone who has travelled by Air India of late can see how well its services compare with those in the private sector — only they come at an unacceptably high cost. We need an understanding of public life in which elected representatives are held responsible for the quality of infrastructural services and the cost at which they are delivered to the public. In fact, this should be deemed their principal task. In time for the general elections of 2014, the discourse on democracy in India needs to be radically altered. Arcane debates in the Cold War mould over the relative merits of capitalism and socialism detract us from the serious task of building infrastructure that confronts us. Till such time as India has this infrastructure, its people will remain the unempowered Asians.

(Pulapre Balakrishnan may be reached at

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The Indian Infrastructure is obviously not sufficient to cope with the
existing population.While physical and human capital are complementary
to each other, they have not been able to keep pace with the rise in
population which in effect propagates inequality among masses.
India might be the third largest Asian economy, the reason it has lagged
behind is because many asian countries have higher per capita GDP and
hence higher living standards than people in india.

from:  Bharat Gakhar
Posted on: Jul 26, 2013 at 16:53 IST

Well-written article (more appropriately titled "Unempowered Indian",
rather than "Unempowered Asian"). Although nothing new has been
stated, it is important to remind ourselves periodically of the
factors holding us back from attaining our full potential. While
agreeing with the author's point about the equal importance of
physical and human infrastructure and the responsibility of the State
to ensure the development of both, I would emphasize one critical
issue. It is the misappropriation of public resources for private
benefit of a few. While corruption in public life is not unique to
India, the proportion of resources siphoned off is perhaps where the
difference lies between India and her Eastern neighbours (apart from
decisive politicians and disciplined populace). If we can tilt the
scales a bit more in favour of effective utilization of public
resources, we should see better results soon.

from:  Sundararajan S. Gopalan
Posted on: Jul 26, 2013 at 08:52 IST

Yesterday an article by some hot shot scholarship winning journalist emphasizes on the meagre five
years that the alleged right has been in power. The 60 Years of extreme left
and marxist power we have seen very much explains or dismal economic record.

from:  Saurav jha
Posted on: Jul 26, 2013 at 08:41 IST

Physical infrastructure plays vital role in the human resource development.Having world's second largest human resource, quick steps are needed by providing good infrastructure to them which help them to develop the capability to be self-dependent rather than dependent on govt.It is always better to teach a child how to walk rather than making him dependent on something everytime he wants to walk.

from:  Prashant
Posted on: Jul 26, 2013 at 03:14 IST

The mosaic of problems our country facing today ranging from miniscule to majestic need to be addressed as quickly possible to sustain her influence in global arena which is only possible by the harmony between our leaders and people.Physical infrastructure which is an essential

from:  Prashant
Posted on: Jul 26, 2013 at 03:04 IST

Undoubtedly a outspoken, frank, open, honest, unhindered Journalism can make change for the better. After independence, India was globally recognized as the largest democracy for its stand on Ahimsa, and the widely exposure of political corruption, violence at unprecedented level, its failure to deal with issues firmly to bring swift and acceptable solutions and the collaboration to the genocide of the Eelam Tamils, India is worse than a dictatorship. The world is watching as most Indian media has been failing to expose the state terrorism and crimes against humanity in Kashmir. Independence has brought more pain and sufferings than good to the average Indians and many lost their freedom, human rights, democracy, rule of law!

from:  Shiva
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 23:06 IST

Nice article Sir... but, don't you think it is not apple to apple comparison between India and the developed economies of the far east especially with regard to the sheer geographic expanse and its high population? If most of the Indians were to carry Gucci bags , it would take another century!

from:  Manoj Cherukat
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 22:54 IST

1. The column does not state anything beyond the obvious observations
2. It could have gone into the reasons for this mess -attempts made by Nitesh and Sushant are good
3. Has the author ever tried to wonder what kind of obstacles some (possibly) good minded non corrupt politicians face while implementing changes for betterment? There are after all some really smart people right at the top. Or is my statement here composed of oxymorons?
4. We need to realise what country is suffering today is not only the result of present "corrupt" politicians but also because of bad governance decisions made pre 1991
5. Imagine ruling two Europes under one central govt with a central policy making body and then abusing the officials of this govt because they cannot make fast changes in country. That is what we are effectively doing here
6. Junk journalism may be sick; but sicker is the flood of pessimism in comments from people who have no idea of how it is to work and manage a huge country like ours

from:  Apurva Godbole
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 22:16 IST

Infrastructure is not created by a magic wand or a well meaning talk. The sticks and stones of Infrastructure are the roads, drains, sewer systems, water distribution systems and the like. Even a child knows how this is created in India. The only difference is the rate of corruption. If hundered rupees is spent in India and South Korea, how much of this is translates to infrastructure on the ground and money in the politicians' pocket in these two countries holds the key. All discources on Indian development index boils down to one word CORRUPTION and every Indian will acknowledge. Its a cancer that needs surgery and not bandages.

from:  Daniel
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 21:33 IST

An average Indian who had been abroad knows all these problems. This can be solved if and only if the Indians with an international and developmental economic mindset come to politics in a big number.

from:  Muthu
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 21:22 IST

That there is no will to manage the economy in an efficient manner and
with empathy to the poorer classes, is evident. It is a difficult
question how this could happen given the quality of leadership in any
political party. One thing the author has not stated was on population
control, without which it is impossible keep an ever burgeoning
population gainfully occupied. Every year resources get spread thinner.

from:  C S Jacob
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 20:18 IST

Being 7th largest country by area and 2nd largest in population, India
has not been learning anything from other much smaller but seemingly
developing Asian countries.The inability of government to handle
economy is very much evident as soaring price-rise and dwindling rupee
value;no wonder, FDI has been welcomed by once so called 'socialist'
nation.The main reason is widespread illiteracy where most of the
population is having just basic education in the name of literacy,
pathetic and downtrodden condition of women & children and religious
beliefs and hatred based on caste & religion.And most importantly,
countries like China, Korea, Japan have a vision for their country,
but India is losing the race because of corruption and divide-rule
policies of political parties.Seems like only privatisation can save
the country.

from:  Vidhi
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 20:02 IST

The poverty is decreasing in India at snails pace. The illusive economic equality cannot be achieved by reservations in college admissions and government employment. The gender equality cannot be achieved by reservation for elections. All these type of reservations are fine examples of discrimination instead of equality and strangulation of merit system. India has no principle in international affairs except the desire for international trade. India still believe in the defunct non-alliance movement, the vestige of cold war. India, being the biggest democracy in the world, is the biggest supporter of dictatorships in the world. It is a contradiction that the Indian government confront Communism in the country, but support all Communist dictatorships elsewhere. While India has replaced Japan as the third biggest economic power in Asia, the per capita income of the Japanese is several times that of Indian per capita income. India need drastic change of course.

from:  Davis K. Thanjan
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 19:18 IST

Sir, With all due respect, don't you think what you have said above is
all too very obvious. What is so new in your voicing of the importance
of public infrastructure in the advancement of an economy and society.
Your voicing may awaken a few middle-class readers who are all too
embroiled in their daily economic strife to reflect upon the current
state of affairs and synthesize by themselves what you have posited
above, but the fact is that a very small fraction of them will turn
out to cast their vote on the election day. It is their indifference -
- perhaps apathy -- that keeps incompetent law/policy makers getting
elected year after year. Not voting on the election day is a
disservice middle-class does only to itself.

from:  pushkar
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 18:23 IST

This is a nice article and people who read this also gave good suggestions and opinions. I say that when we, the people of India should learn to obey the rules and most importantly follow the rules. If every one starts their bit of work, then definitely INDIA will become super power in the world. Finally I say obey and follow the rules. By following the rules one can the

from:  Raghavendra Jakka
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 17:44 IST

Thanks very much for the enlightening article ‘The Unempowered Asian’ by Mr. Balakrishnan.

The reason for the poor quality of infrastructural services and the high cost at which they are delivered is not simply because of the self seeking politicians who focus only on short term gains but also because of the uninformed workers in our pubic-sectors. First we must inculcate in the minds of these workers that they are public servants in the cause of uplifting the country’s economic standard. A position in the public service system is not something one can lord it over or consider as a position to earn his or her fortunes. We need a complete revamp of our existing systems in the public sector while we launch out the new ones. The marvelous and the glorious public services of many Asian countries like Seoul, China etc. in contrast to the deplorable situation in our country must challenge us to emulate and excel.

from:  J.R.Jayabalan
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 17:12 IST

Great article. I wonder why THE HINDU did not venture out earlier to the North India and still absent in the West India. We who live in Bombay are fed up with the junk journalism dolled out everyday and are eagerly waiting for the HINDU. The high quality articles such as this one should enlighten every educated man and even influence the dull Mandarins who make policies.

from:  Harisankaran. V
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 16:42 IST

I guess the reason behind the success of the east (countries east of
india) is the discipline amongst its people, people willing to go along
policies adopted by the leadership and people are hard working. In India
everyone is a boss and everyone thinks that they know everything when in
actual fact they are ignorant of many things. Sheer size of the economy
will mean nothing if the quality of life for the majority remains the
same as pre independence

from:  garyron
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 16:30 IST

Lack of concern for context sensitive technological advancement and lack of political will.... these are the only problems in a broader context....

from:  Rachit
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 13:58 IST

Nice article. We all very well know that infrastruture of India will improve only when our political system,which is still suffering in the name of caste and religion, really thinks in economical development terms and not to win over their future elections.

from:  Kajol
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 13:37 IST

Nice article. So many points and aspects of indian economy are nicely put. As far as resources and infrastructure is concerned, we need to manage and work on them from India's perspective and not just copy and pest form somewhere else. Instead of going for the largest of the things we should strive hard for the best. One again, nice article.

from:  Amrendra Oraon
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 12:50 IST

Nice article ,....talking about infrastructure in india as a whole is very poor, govt. is just focusing on there election they don, t even bother that rich and poor gap is increasing day by day, rupee dollar rate is increasing. India lost its charm....need to focus

from:  Ritika
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 12:23 IST

Really well put article.It has identified the most immediate problems
india is facing.But, the solutions offered still seems like a distant
dream. Today every decision of government is motivated by votebank
politics. Increasing prices of necessary commodities is imposed on the
common man without any focus being given to avoid the huge wastage of
these resources.Air India, is a perfect example of government's
negligence.It incurs a huge loss every fiscal year, bailouts are given
using public money.It again keeps running on age old policies
providing benefits to the either employees of Air India or Sarkari
So as Mr. Balakrishnan said "How much infrastructure we have is less
important than how well we put it to use.".

from:  Gaurav Jain
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 12:05 IST

It is true that there is a widespread poverty in India.Improving the
economic condition of its people can be lead into empowerment but we
can not make it a precondition for the empowerment. Inequalities and
poverty are the part of the process of economic development. Today we
can see that there are more demands by the people and also previously
downtrodden people have say in governance.At the village level
grampanchayats have more empowered than the previous time and also
due to NREGS rural labours are able to bargain more wages.So clouds
are not dark, if for sometime let we think that they are dark then
there are many silver lines.This is the time when we proceed in the
forward way rather than looking for the faults in the system.What we
Indians lacking is the confidence first we have to believe on
ourselves,all the others things are only small hurdles in the path of

from:  Sarvesh Mishra
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 11:44 IST

Very well articulated arguments that really hit the nail on the head.
It is true that physical and social infrastructure are proving to be
the real constraints to growth. Other Asian countries such as China
(the inevitable reference point) have managed to use public
investments in infrastructure to overcome the recent slowdown. This is
because the multiplier effects of such investment are recognised to be
substantial. At the same time, it would be incorrect to say that this
issue has not entered national consciousness or the political
discourse. At least, political analysts and psephologists would have
us believe that bijli, pani and sadak are the true electoral issues
now whether it is a state election or general elections. But looking
at the pattern of voting one discerns that people still have strong
preferences based on the caste factor and most parties choose
candidates based on the caste composition of a constituency.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 11:22 IST

The reason India is lagging in the Asia are Government,Law & Lack of
Skilled Labor.Every time government form in India either on the basis
of religion,regionalism or caste election in India is so bloody
expensive that a politician when came into power he had to repay his
debts and caught in a vicious circle of spending and looting.Next came
law the cumbersome and extremely slow process of delivering justice
make people and organization hopeless and instead of doing work for
nation building they put their all energy in covering themselves in a
shell to protect from law.Third and the most important is the lack of
skilled people thousands of people graduating every year but they are
lacking some of the basic skills government must encourage agriculture
based business it will help in providing jobs to people the the field
in which they are very good.

from:  Nitesh
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 10:55 IST

That is exactly the point u fine an infrastructure company which makes roads,hospitals,schools,ITI but the govt and SC themselves provide nothing ur roads built by PWD get washed away with the first rains ,ur hospitals have no staff no medicines they hardly work coz govt job means lifelong immunity from work ur schools mid day meals kill so what do u do?Empower NGOs who pocket the money or pseudo enviornmentalists who make do with the media exposure after uttarakhand like tragedies or the money to keep quiet!!!HONESTY and LET SOMEBODY doing GOOD let them di good do not be like the indian crabs story where u do nothing and do not let others do anything?!

from:  Dr Gautam Dhar
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 10:47 IST

Very nice article. India certainly needs to build its infrastructure in
a war like urgency. Social transformations like, equity in society,
can't happen unless other factors of development are done with. The onus
of building the infrastructure must lie with the government as it has
the necessary resources and legislative tools behind it. Investments
from private sector must be encouraged in the secondary sector. Poverty
in India will also reduce if the government starts bringing reforms on
daily basis, this would only provide the necessary thrust.

from:  Divya Prakash
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 10:42 IST

I would say that this is another article from the Hindu's arsenal of
its columnist having high-level nous. The flair of this article is
really appreciable. Unlike other articles written over economy, it
throws light not only on the problem but gives us remedies as well.

It is now apparent that our economy is lagging many notches from other
Asian economies. It may also be noted that how poor was Singapore in
70's decade and today its progress is not hidden from anyone. The
perpetrators of our economy are responsible for its backwardness.
Recent example is the promulgation of "Food Security Bill". This was
the time when measures to curb the burgeoning price rise of essential
commodities would have been taken and the existing PDS system could
have been improved but Govt. is in spree of preparing for next
Root cause of this problem is corruption at all levels including lower-
level bureaucracy.

Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 10:39 IST

It is indeed a shameful condition for a huge economy. Boasting about its hugeness and blaming overpopulation as a reason wont help always. India is an economy having very unequal distribution of money. Poor people are suffering as usual. Aren't they citizen of India?
Education is an asset which can be liquified easily. Steps must ne taken to ensure Education to almost every citizen. Education is a subscriber for confidence. We should strengthen education for blooming the economy further.

from:  Ashutosh Dalal
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 10:17 IST

Kudos to Mr.Balakrishnan for this wonderful article. Public
infrastructure, poverty line, human resource development and people-
empowerment - are just the keywords that ideally politicians should be

But alas, all that sells like hot cakes with Indian politics is
religion, caste and riots. Just hoping that such enlightened articles
show them the light of the right path towards progress and growth.

from:  Rejani
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 09:58 IST

Brilliantly put.
Nowadays, FDI is projected as the panacea for all sorts of economic
problems. Poor is starving, we'll open up the market for more FDI.
Rupee is falling, more FDI. FOREX is collapsing, lay the carpet for
all companies to come in with their FDIs. The Government shall reckon,
even the companies interested in the Indian market are not so stupid
to believe that such FDIs could actually be realized on ground without
proper infrastructure in place. Propounding policies is one thing, and
ensuring their implementation is another. Unless both of them are
carried out together, there can be no solution.

from:  Vatsal
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 09:57 IST

Nice article, ....... hope policy maker's read this. ....

from:  Joe
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 09:32 IST

The Daily Telegraph put this pithily when it wrote that in New Delhi,
the capital of India where there are slick flyovers and state of the
art hospitals, the poor and disadvantaged give birth to their babies
under those very flyovers without any medical aid. Further words are
superfluous in talking about our neglect of the poor. We debate
endlessly of our having reduced the number of people living below the
poverty line, an exericse that should satisfy only the economists..

Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 09:27 IST

Talking of infrastructure In Tamilnadu the Govt has still not laid two line Rail tracks from Chennai to Kanyakumari. When would they complete that so train services can be improved in Tamilnadu? Tamil people do not have the go-getter attitude and so they don't get good infrastructure

from:  Lajan
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 09:22 IST

Well written article. India has seriously ignored its poor people. The ignorance to the facts is what is most disheartening.

from:  Mario Rohan
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 08:55 IST

Its disheartening to know that India's economic and financial condition is in utter chaos and turmoil, its true that we are hit by hard times and need a radical change in reforms which is a bottom down approach benefitting the poorer section of the society to richer one's by utilizing the resources for bring up infrastructures which can be utilized to its best possible way, which will benefit the society as well as the nation.

from:  Christen
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 06:32 IST

India has more poor than all 20 subsaharan nations. It tops the world when it
comes to disease prevelance (T.B to Malaria, dysentery to Dengue). Its slums are
larger than many cities. Its treatment of its citizens women to school children
(rapes to child labour) is the worst among nations. Public health and health care
for ordinary citizens is non existant. Its army is fighting its own people in half a
dozen states.

When it comes to corruption and politicians looting the nation - India is the place
to go - to study corruption. The scale of scandals is mind numbing.

It is a disgrace to any group of nations. The poorest among the BRIC nations.Why
would anyone want to make it a permanent member of the security council? The
criteria hould be economic development and transparency of its government.

India is not shining. It is rotting. The stench would soon become obvious if not

from:  Sekar
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 05:41 IST

its true what the author has mentioned about the relative poor position
of indian with respect to its more prosperous nation but the article
would have been more interesting had he continued with the comparison.
there administrative and other best practices that have yielded such
results. we never got to know how is it that these nations achieved the
feat while india failed to do so. rest of the article is all about the
general problems in the indian economy such as infrastructure etc.

from:  sushant
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 05:40 IST

US-worshipping Indians may feel too comfortable to bother about the fact
that aping cut-throat capitalism of the Anglo-American style with
branded consumption is not going to help India. In fact, it will only
tempt the US to expand and exploit its power on brainy and obedient
India to fall for monetary (not economic) policies of the Rothschilds

from:  Rajan Mahadevan
Posted on: Jul 25, 2013 at 01:52 IST
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