Barh Mukti Abhyan Second Delegates Conference Nirmali, Supaul, Bihar Report April 5-6, 1997

The Second Delegates Conference of Barh Mukti Abhiyan was held in the premises of Tera Pantha, Nirmali on April 5-6, 1997. It took off with a brief presentation by Sri Vijay Kumar, the joint convener of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, apprising the audience of the scenario leading to the inception of Barh Mukti Abhiyan. He said : when the floods in 1984 breached the eastern embankment along the river Kosi near Nauhatta in Saharsa, it amounted to a breach of faith the people had reposed in it for their well-being. Till then the small breaches in the embankments and the damages caused thereby were regarded as mishaps, but what happened in Nauhatta was nothing short of a cataclysm. The course of the river forced itself out of the embankment. Flood waters engulfed an area of nearly 70,000 hectares nearly half a million people were rendered homeless and countless people and animals lost their lives.

This disaster impelled us to carry out an in-depth study of the problem of floods and by 1987 we had gathered a lot of information on it. In the year 1987 the western embankment along Kosi was breached at Samani and Ghonghepur and the embankments along other rivers met the same fate at 103 places. Now it was evident beyond a shade doubt that embankments aggravated the catastrophe of floods and hence we launched a programme of mass education on the problem of floods on the basis of our experiences and perception derived therefrom. Throughout the river basins of North Bihar-right from the Ghaghra in the west to the Mahananda in the east-we tried to raise awareness among people through camps, meetings and a host of other channels of dialogue with them. We had evolved a clear understanding that neither is it possible to control floods through technical means nor is it desirable to do so. Floods are welcome, but not the kind that have been created through the construction of embankments. We want the natural floods visiting the rivers—floods that are part of the life cycle of rivers, and not the man-made and unnatural ones. Breaches in embankments cause a veritable deluge and not floods. The obstructed waters outside of embankments cause a different kind of floods which inflict suffering for a long time in the form of waterlogging. We tried to apprise people of all this. Now the engineers too have dropped the idea of flood control and started talking about flood management. That is to say, they too now concede that whatever has been done to handle floods till now is futile and that something different needs to be done and that is exactly what we believe too. But what they propose to do by way of remedy to the flood problem – construction of dams like the one at Barah Kshetra, well, we don't agree with that. In fact, when it comes to flood management as such, nothing concrete ever happens to that end; only empty rhetoric is bandied about.

Now let's take a look at drought areas. Dry farming and watershed management were attempted there along with efforts to restructure the cropping pattern. But nothing of the sort has been attempted to date in the flood areas. You talk about flood management, and pat comes the reply-flood plain zoning is the thing to do; and no, nothing thereafter and hence in order to raise all these issues we created an organization called Barh Mukti Abhiyan in 1991. Freedom from Floods Campaign is a relative proposition. We do not want freedom from natural floods. But, then we do not have natural floods any more. We have only man-made, unnatural floods and we do want to be freed from that. We organized the first conference of Barh Mukti Abhiyan in Vidyapati Bhawan in Patna on July 1-2-3,1992. Some seven hundred delegates from the entire province and different parts of the country participated in it. It was perhaps for the first time ever that so many people deliberated on the problem of floods and thereafter a padayatra programme was undertaken from Koparia to Birpur in the Kosi area on the initiative of the local people.

Engineers present the problem of floods as a technical problem and thereby render it beyond the comprehension of common man, whereas this is entirely a matter of common sense. In fact, they hardly ever enter into any dialogue with the common man- and take seriously what he has to say in this regard. They are given to working wilfully in their own domains. We want to bust this myth of flood problem being entirely a technical problem.

We chose a remote place like Nirmali to hold our second conference because right here fifty years back a conference of flood sufferers was held on April 6, 1947 and veteran leaders like Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. Srikrishna Singh and Shri Guljarilal Nanda had participated in it. The proposal of Kosi High Dam was mooted here publicly the very same day. But later on embankments were constructed along Kosi instead of high dam and now that their role has come to be dubious, there is yet again a talk of high dam. A lot of work has been done on the role of high dams during these fifty years. Perhaps this is yet another effort to foist this measure on us and we must analyze the realities of the situation, for those who will build the dams won't care a damn what happens to people later on. While choosing Nirmali as the venue for conference the historical context of the time and place was dominating our minds. This is a small place, there will be lots of inconveniences, but then this place has a historical significance and that is highly important in the present context.

'Strange is the irony with us. Sardar Sarovar Project has displaced only 1,29,000 people-but the entire world knows about it. Here in Kosi there are some eight lakh people trapped inside of the embankment and as many outside of it and Kamala area to it, and the number mounts up to twenty lakhs. They have been having a hell of a time, but no one cares a damn about them. We are happy to have friends here from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka as also from the drought areas of South Bihar and river basins of North Bihar. We extend a hearty welcome to all of them.'

The local people have helped us a lot in organizing this conference. Sri Hari Prasad Sah, Sri Surya Narayan Kamat and Prof. Dhirendra not only joined us in making arrangements but also boosted our morale. We shall make utmost use of all this help and evolve strategies for future action on the issue of floods.

After the introductory speech of Sri Vijay Kumar, Sri Hari Prasad Sah welcomed the participants. The conference was formally inaugurated by a prominent social activist of the region and president of the Bihar Kudal Sena, Sri Ram Lakhan Jha.

Sri Jha said :Water is vital for life as vital as air and food grains. It is difficult to imagine life without water. But science went crazy and disrupted man's harmony with nature and fought against it. The fallout appeared in the form of ravaging floods and droughts. He further said that when there was utter ignorance in the world then India lit up the world with knowledge about it and this knowledge was generated on the banks of rivers. Our civilization, culture, religion and cultural heritage everything was created on the banks of rivers. Unfortunately science went beyond the limits and reverted this. Look at Mithila-bounded by the Gandak in the west, the Kosi in the east, the Himalayas in the north and the Ganga in the south; This entire tract was sanctified by various rivers. Remember, Videha, remember the mother Sita-all of them blessed this land and today we are here to discuss the floods afflicting it. We have got trapped up. See, this is a booklet circulated by Kudal Sena-giving the call : `Stop floods or knock down embankments'. We have been raising this issue since long. We held a conference in 1987 and said that floods are man-made-nothing but a game of technical manipulation.

'I would like suggest that you constitute a committee to have an exact idea of the money spent on all the flood control projects and progress made therein. We could do this for north Bihar at the least. No evaluation has been made of these schemes as yet; we do not yet know anything about their achievements. Please come and have a look in the Kosi-Kamala area : there is a colony for Irrigation department personnel, materials are dumped in houses and no one ever visits the place. I am sure things are the same in other places too. Please make arrangements for people's evaluation of all this. Take a resolve to that effect in this conference.'

The inaugural session came to an end with the speech of Sri Ram Lakhan Jha.

The second session was presided over by Dr. Guru Das Agrawal and conducted by Sri Dinesh Kumar Mishra. Introducing the theme of the discussion Sri Mishra said that in many areas a delusion of development has been created in place of development. The same thing has happened in the area of flood control as well, where instead of controlling floods, a delusion of flood control has been created. In this session the delegates from various river basins dwelt on the situation of flood and waterlogging in their areas.

Sri Kameshwar Lal Indu from Chanpatia (West Champaran) dwelt at length on the situation in the Gandak area. He said : The plight of the people of this area-whether inside of the embankment or outside of it-is to wait for rehabilitation. There is a virtual maze of rivers in Champaran where the Gandak descends from the mountains and the Burhi Gandak originates. There are altogether 59 rivers-big and small-in the sixteen blocks there; There is a river every half Km./one Km. in the area and we are settled in their midst and hence flood is nothing uncommon here. A barrage was built on the Gandak in 1965 and the Indian P.M. and the King of Nepal made many promises in their inaugural addresses on the occasion, but we are still waiting for any of them to come off. And Champaran and the people of the soil were betrayed. It was claimed at the time that flood would be controlled in Champaran through this measure. The irony is that the size of Champaran keeps on fluctuating. The Bihar-Nepal boundary lies here, and the river passes midway. One bank of the river lies in Nepal. In the west lies Uttar Pradesh and in the east lies Bihar. The river keeps on shifting its course and erosion continues. The bank lying in Nepal, being laid with boulders, does not suffer any erosion, but the one lying in U.P.-Bihar goes through non-stop erosion. When floods come there is no erosion, but when flood waters start receding there is a lot of it. The size of India is diminishing and that of Nepal is increasing. Negotiations are held to sort it out, but to no avail. Very much like the Teen Bigha dispute with Bangladesh, there is dispute with Nepal over a plot of twenty acres. This has been persisting for years and we are living in a state of uncertainty. Well, coming back to the question of floods—the left hand embankment along the Gandak was built some 250 years ago. It looked as though we are secure now. There was no breach in it till 1993. The right hand one at Pipra Piprasi has suffered breaches 53 times in 40 years. The left one was breached in 1993 washing away the entire block. Brick houses, farmlands, farmyards everything vanished. The place we regarded as secure for past 250 years—well, there is no village over there now. Bathana, the most educated and prosperous village of Champaran, is no more. Who can say what will happen during floods this year? Flood is our destiny. Irrigation was to be an offshoot of embankments. The home-area of the then President was also located within the command area of the Gandak canals which must have entailed the extension of the embankment up to Nepal. The work on canals was started in Nepal. The power-house feeding on Western Gandak canal was installed in Nepal. The government of India makes all these arrangements in Nepal. And here we are being submerged in West Champaran. Today the waters of the Gandak are inundating the entire area of Muzaffarpur and Vaishali. There is no water when it is needed. The soil on which the embankment has been erected does not avail of canal waters. The great sage-poet Valmiki was born here. He was a robber turned superman. But we are plain robbers now. Committing robbery is no more a crime here—it is a business. Why is it so? The river Sikarhana has originated here. It widens its course and demolishes nine blocks. Whether 250 years old or 40 years old, no embankment ever functions. The western embankment lying in Bihar is repaired by the people of Uttar Pradesh. The link of this part with the rest of Bihar is snapped for six months. Nearly 20 lakh people trapped between Padrauna and Tamkuhi live in a hapless state—danger looming large on their-very survival. No one knows how long a village would exist. And relief is a permanent feature of our life When there is no flood, there is erosion. One has to wade through three Kms. of water to collect 1 Kg of Chooda (beaten paddy). And that too is quite a cut-throat affair. It has been claimed that there will be no more floods, that there will be enough water for irrigation as well as supply of power. The land of Champaran is enormously fertile, it only needs water and it will get that. We did get water but the waterlogged area was much larger than the irrigated area. Lakhani chaur and Tarkulva chaur used to have three crops. But there is not a trace of crops there any more. People were ruined, turned destitute. We waited long for some improvement in the situation, but nothing came about. We lost heart. And now even our spirit is to be shattered. It is pointless to say that someone is inside of the embankment and someone is outside of it. Everyone's lot is the same. Right here Mahatma Gandhi Project was started some 35 years back. It is called Masan Dam Project. The scheme was designed to cover 150 villages. 750 personnel were appointed by the River Valley Project. The project has vanished but the employees have been very, much there for 35 years. Work was not even started—perhaps the heavens know if it will ever be started at all, or perhaps there is no need for this. The day this will be started—the very same day will spell a doom for whatever remains of Champaran. This has no utility at all. So, this is the suffering of Champaran. We have been struggling for past thirty years over these very issues. We have fought many battles. The drainage programme was launched here twice. Canals were dug, sluice gates were built. But when the time for drainage came and gates were opened, instead of water draining out of the chaur the river waters rushed through them. And the villagers were forced to close the sluice gates.

The sluice gates built for drainage of water added to the suffering of people by causing an onrush of water. Our holy rivers have descended from above and likewise our misfortunes too have descended on us from above! We cannot stop floods. When the embankments do not serve any purpose any more, what is the point in retaining them? And so there should be a movement, there should be a drive to that end. The contract of quarrying is another menace facing us. It has ruined the entire block of Gaunaha. This is the first block of the country and has Bhitiharwa Ashram in it where Gandhiji had stayed for some time. And this land and its people are in deep trouble because of this quarrying business. Today we are assembled here to find some way out. This can be a way to life, or a way to death; this can be a way to living death, or a way to dying life. Whatever the way we choose the people of Champaran will be there with all their might.

Sri Deonath Devan from the so-called flood-free area between the rivers the, Kamala and the Kosi, said : 'The river Kamala continues to be a curse, particularly for the people of Madhubani district. This river, in fact, had an altogether different profile in the pre-embankment days. In order to dazzle people in their constituencies, hog some credit and make it to the assembly or parliament thereby, our leaders embanked the rivers. As Sri Ram Lakhan Jhaji pointed out, the area lying between Pirhi and Jasma Marar, where there is no embankment is free from ravaging floods and people are rather better-off there. There is hardly any village lying alongside the Kamala embankment that is not afflicted with waterlogging. In the pre-embankment days the flood waters would rush down freely, spread out fertile clay or silt and recede just as freely. And mostly there would be a good crop. Yes, floods did come even then, but the waters never rose above the knee level. During some rare floods only the waters rose up to waist level. do not know of any instance of a village being washed away before embankments were erected; but afterwards many villages are washed away or just vanish every year. And this is an ever mounting danger. When the Kamala embankment was built up, leaders and contractors were in the forefront, but now that people themselves say—enough is enough, we have had a hell of a lot of security and comfort, we do not want embankments anymore, then hoodlums are sent along with contractors and police force to tell us threateningly not to obstruct embankment work. The reason is obvious. After all, if there is no embankment work, how will the money-spinning business of vested interests flourish? How will they share the spoils? And hence building and breaching of embankments is necessary so that this business of loot could continue. I have visited the Kamala and the Kosi embankments and observed the earth work going on. Wherever repair work is carried out, the earth lying right inside of the embankment is dug up and laid on it causing large pits alongside. This makes way for the river to surge up to the embankment and erode and breach it easily. Now tenders will be invited for contracts of piling to protect the embankments. Our farmlands outside of the embankments are waterlogged; they are not cultivable. Now if the people breach the Kamala embankment at Bhagwanpur, Nirmala and Khairi, the police force comes and rounds them up, criminal cases are lodged against them and they are shoved inside jails. What is the option left for people in such a situation but to chase the contractors, engineers and goons away? How so ever vehemently the people might protest, the government is hell bent on building embankments and repairing the damaged ones. Surely, if this is not so, what will be left for the administration to do? Last year we staged dharna on the issue of floods because the Kamala embankment had been breached at many places and people had been forced to breach it at many points. The administration said that anti-social elements had breached it. The question is : whose carelessness and wilfulness is responsible for breaches in the embankments? When we breached it we did so to save our lives, because there was no channel left for drainage of water. Even after our repeated requests not to build embankments, if the administration embanks the river forcibly, then surely they must be benefiting from it in some way or other? So something concrete must be done to address this problem now and sooner, the better.'

Going further ahead Sri Kameshwar Kamati from the same area said that when the embankment was breached last year, the local administration did not lodge the first information report. They simply kept on saying that the embankment had been breached. And the political leaders kept on saying that the anti-social elements had breached it. And that was that.

‘What is more’, he further said, “I am from an area that is technically flood-free. During 1987 floods water entered into my house and rose to waist level and knocked it down; I am yet to rebuild it. There are hundreds and thousands like me who are not able to rebuild their houses. So this is how things are like in the so-called flood-free areas.”

Sri Sampat Lal and Digambarjee (Dist.-Madhubani) from Nirmala and Khairi respectively described the plight of their villages thereafter. They also recounted how they got a bit of relief from waterlogging in their secure area when the flood waters breached the embankment at some places and people breached it at some others. They said that farming was revived in their villages nearly after 20 years as a result of this.

Sri Dinesh Kumar Mishra intervened at this point and said that, in fact, the options are very limited indeed, for the area Sri Deonath Devan, Kameshwar Kamati, Sampat Lal or Digambarjee have talked about would get inundated by the waters of Gehuma, Sugarve or Supain even if it is spared by Kamala and Kosi. The reason is obvious : the level of river bed is higher that of the outlying land, and sluice gates, if there are any, are hardly ever functional.

Sri Rameshwarji from Gunakarpur said : 'My village lies on the left bank of Kamala where the water rushing down the slope does not find its way to the river. In case of breach in embankment the entire area is swamped with silt, as it happened in 1987. This much of earth work would cost a lot. And then people don't sleep in nights out of fear for three months. Even those places are waterlogged where no breach has occurred. There is a lot of divergence between the plan, estimates and actual work done. Spending money is the only aim—nothing doing with actual work. Last year when the embankment at Nirmala was breached, the amount of earth deposited in the area would have cost crores if effected through contract. Why doesn't the government take this into account? If our area waterlogged, and we dont speak up against this, then this reflects that our development is coming about !'

Sri Vinod Kumar Sah of the Mahananda Tatbandha Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Kadava, Katihar said : The western embankment of Mahananda starts from Belgachhi. Some five lakh people inside of the embankment have been suffering for last 25 years. While there was no embankment, the politicians took the people for a ride that once the river is embanked that will be the end of the floods. But today all of us are having a tough time-whether inside of the embankment or outside of it. Even landlords owning 200 bighas of land in our area have turned paupers, Surely, the dams and embankments built in our area have done us a lot of good they have turned farmers into labourers and labourers into beggars ! Governments keep on changing, but one thing remains the same : neither the government at the centre nor the one at the state ever provides even a handful of grain to the people inside of the embankments. It looks as though there is a deliberate design to mete out step-motherly treatment to them. When our survival was threatened during the floods in 1987 we were forced to breach the western embankment along the Mahananda near Kachaura, but the government plugged the breaches later on. So, the embankments kept on being built up at many places and the security of those living inside of them was played around with, annually. At long last, we decided that we shall not bear it any more and last year (1996) we formed Mahananda Tatbandh Virodhi Sang harsh Samiti which began its activities under the leadership of Sri Mangan lnsan. The Samiti workers chased away the engineers, contractors and the police force on Feb, 2 this year when they were here to repair damaged. Mahananda embankment at three places. Later we came to know on the 7th that the repair work was to begin again from the next day. We came to know of this too, that this time a platform will be built on the embankment for providing shelter during floods and that a lavatory will also be built there. We did not agree with this. If platforms and lavatories are to be built they should be built in our villages. But we are sure that this platform is being built not for us but for the accommodation of police force on the embankment. In the night itself we announced on the loudspeakers that the embankment repair work was going to begin from the next day so that all the adjoining villages could know about it. By early morning nearly seven thousand people (as per government estimate) gathered at the site of repair work and once again we chased the contractors, engineers and the police force and warned them not to come here for this work ever again. We made the contractors give us a written undertaking to the effect that unless local people wanted it, they will never build up the embankment again. Even then the administration did not withdraw this programme and we were forced to gherao the block office on Feb. 17 raising the fact that a government which cannot provide even a handful of grains to the flood-stricken people cannot be allowed to build up embankments. With the embankment being open people on both sides of it are very happy. Those inside of it are happy because the flood water will not rise up to fatal level now and those outside of it because they will not have to face the danger of breaches in it now. Everyone knows how to cope with normal floods in our area. Go and have a look at our area today : there is a bumper crop of wheat on both sides of the embankments—the kind that never happened before. Now it is all the more difficult for us to comprehend the logic behind embankments. But today we are sure of one thing : that so long as embankments are there or are repaired, we shall keep on opposing it fiercely. And come what may, we shall not let it be built or repaired any more. I would expect this conference to constitute a state-level committee which could keep a watchful eye on all this and provide necessary guidelines to us.

Sri Brahmadeo Chaudhary from the rehabilitation village Kathaghara lying east of the eastern Kosi embankment said : 'Today we are gathered here to make an evaluation of work done during the last fifty years after the first conference held in Nirmali. In fact, the situation has worsened in our area after the construction of the Kosi embankment. My village lies alongside the eastern Kosi embankment around the 114th Km. point. The elderly people say that before the river, was embanked, there was never any dearth of paddy, pulses and oilseeds in our area. We had fishes and makhana in plenty. The area outside of embankment remains totally waterlogged—there is no channel of drainage at all. The entire area is enveloped by a water creeper called 'bhakhan'. Every year the village inside of embankment suffers erosion and sand is spread out all over. Wherever a bit of silt is deposited there are good crops there, otherwise the people of this entire area, whether inside of the embankment or outside of it, flee to Delhi and Punjab in search of a living. Formerly only the adults used to go out but for last ten years the children have also started going—usually to the carpet industry area of Bhadohi and Mirzapur. The people inside of the embankment are stricken with flood and erosion. I hope this conference will generate some suggestions towards a permanent solution to the flood problem and that they will be acted upon.'

A resident of the Bagmati area, Sri Vijay Kumar (joint convener of Barh Mukti Abhiyan) said : The river Bagmati can be divided into three parts in Bihar. The upper part stretching from the boundary of Nepal in the district of Sitamarhi to Runni Saidpur is embanked on both sides along a length of 32 Kms. The river is free even now from Runni Saidpur to Kalanjarghat in Samastipur. But it was embanked as early as in the fifties between Dharmapur and Dhamara Ghat, where it joins the Kosi. If you move along the river Bagmati you can perceive the difference between an embanked and a non-embanked river clearly. We had a very distinguished engineer here. He had made quite a name—he had done and written a lot about Bagmati. Quite a famous engineer—but he had no spine at all. Such people are very useful for the power-that-be. As has been said aptly :

Takht ke aage adab se aaiye
Reedh ki haddi alag rakh aaiye

(Appear before the throne meekly leaving your spine behind.)

The essence of what he said about Bagmati till 1954 is that Bagmati is a flashy and virgin river and that it would not be proper to put it into wedlock, that is, to embank it. The water of Bagmati was regarded as holy and life-sustaining as the sermons of Gita, but when the work on Kosi embankment was started, politics took on its true colours. Those who regarded the Bagmati as a flashy and virgin river kept mum at the time. The upper embankment along the Bagmati terminates at my village. I am from an area where the embankment is very much there and yet it is not there. But still the upland embankments do affect us. I have been a witness to the time when there was no embankment. The waters of Bagmati used to spill over in the entire area, the floods used to be a welcome phenomenon, there used to be good crops most of the time and everything was just about fine. When this upper embankment was built up there was emergency in the country and hence vocal protest was not possible against it, because almost anyone having even a bit of influence was in jail. But the farmers had perceived that whatever a handful of educated people were doing with the river was very ominous. Neither do they know anything about the nature of the river's flow nor do they know anything about the quality of the soil carried by it; and they do not have any sense of our life-style and requirements either. They did protest but it could not take a decisive turn, and the embankment was built up. Anyway, things are a bit bearable in our area, but the area right north-west of it where the Bagmati embankment touches the boundary of Nepal, is fraught with problems. The embankment is breached there by flood waters and people also breach it to let out the stagnant water. A well-wisher of ours from this area is a minister at the centre these days and was formerly the chairman of the Bihar Legislative Council. His area too was severely waterlogged. And there too the people used to breach the embankments under the leadership of the honourable minister. He had recounted this himself on the occasion of releasing Mishraji's book ‘Bandini Mahananda’. He had narrated how they used to breach the embankment with pick axes and spades earlier and with the help of diesel pump later. The inlet pipe of the pump was inserted into the waterlogged area and the outlet pipe was placed onto the embankment and the pump was started. In a short while both the embankment and waterlogging were done away with. We do not know about his stand in this regard at the moment, but he had stated this in a public forum and we have a video record of the occasion with us. Whatever happened in 1993? Some people say that building a dam at Nunthar in Nepal is the solution to the floods caused by the Bagmati. There is one Kulekhani Dam in Nepal on this river although a modest one in terms of its height. This too is a power generation scheme in which a power house has been built up alongside the Dam. Here it is important to point out that whatever dam is proposed in Nepal-which we shall discuss later—has power generation as its main objective, and not flood control. Whether it is the proposed Barahkshetra Dam on the Kosi, or the Nunthar Dam on the Bagmati, or the Chisapani Dam on the Kamala—each one is to be built with power generation as the prime objective. During the 1993 floods the pipe carrying water to the powerhouse of the Kulekhani Dam burst and that caused water to flow back into the river. Owing to high pressure the on rushing water forced itself through the Karmahiya barrage built across the river and entered into the Indian territory, but it had already killed eleven hundred Nepali citizens. When this water rushed into Bihar it breached the Bagmati embankment at six points. There was absolutely no trace of four villages. We could reach that place only several days after the disaster and then the hand pump pipes were the only indications of any village having been there. A havoc was wrought on the entire area. The villagers had taken shelter on the raised spots nearby. When we talked to them they did express their grief at their houses having been washed away, but they also looked heartened at the prospect of a bumper crop, as the river had deposited fertile silt on their farmlands in ample measure. When the administration p
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