Course:ANTH302A/2020/India - North

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The northern region of India has a malleable definition but is generally viewed as the region that is geographically demarcated by the Himalayas to the north and the Vindyha Mountain range to the south found in the state of Madyha Pradesh. The region consists of the states of Delhi, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. It is has notably been the historical centre of many ruling classes such as the Mughal and British Indian Empires[1]. Demographically, North India belongs to the Indo-Aryan linguistic and ethnic branch. Furthermore, the region is host to various social and caste groups, from Brahmins to Dalits. India is officially a secular state, but Hinduism is the predominant religion in the area, however many other religions are practised in the region[1].

A map of India, with the states often referred to as "North Indian" highlighted in red[2]

The global pandemic currently being experienced by Northern India and the rest of the world is a newly identified coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which exhibits itself as a respiratory illness called COVID-19.[3] The disease emerged in China in December 2019, and as of August 18th, 2020, 774,682 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 worldwide[3]. The first confirmed case in India was reported on January 30th, 2020 in the southwestern sate of Kerala[4]. On March 24th, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21 day nation-wide lockdown, and come March 31st, the Nizamuddin area of the northern India city of Delhi emerged as a 'hotspot' for the virus [5]. Despite the sweeping lockdown that was imposed on the high-density population, and which was extended a number of times by the Prime Minister, India continues to struggle along with the rest of the world with the virus.

Because COVID-19 spreads through bodily fluids and is passed easily in close proximity, the population of 1.3 billion in India is a disadvantage. Northern India has suffered especially, the area being home the most of India's population, containing the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which, as of April 9th, 2020, only had 11 virus testing facilities for 235 million people[6]. Northern India is also a region of political importance, as it holds the country's capital of New Delhi.

In Northern India, the effects of the virus, as well as the lockdown, have been severe, and has affected many parts of the country's economy, infrastructure, labour force and traditions. Disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers and Dalits (and other low-ranking members within the caste system) have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Caste-related violence, both interpersonally and instated by the government's unwillingness to recognize and provide aid to such groups within the frame of large-scale disaster relief required by every sector, has increased throughout the pandemic, placing Dalits in an even more vulnerable position in Northern India.

Informal sector workers in the region have also been placed in positions of such vulnerability. Domestic workers, construction workers, sanitation workers and many more, who usually belong to oppressed castes have been excluded from the labour laws given the ‘informal’ nature of their work.[7] No written contracts and no government benefits, along with intersections of social status, caste, gender etc. forces them into becoming vulnerable to exploitation from their employers. Since the start of the lockdown, many haven’t gotten their wages, despite working on the frontlines.

The pandemic has indirectly impacted the lives of many young people in the region of Northern India. Resources have had to be pooled to help contain the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which has led to shortages in essential health services and products, notably for young women. Furthermore, the strained health system has been unable to accommodate the widespread depression amongst the younger population, caused by the country-wide lockdowns. These consequences can lead to structural damage within Indian society in the future, given that the majority of the population is under the age of 30.

From a traditional standpoint, the pandemic has affected the religions of the North India, specifically Hinduism, which is the most prominent religion in the region[8]. The pandemic has caused the closures of many temples, which has had mixed reactions from the general public, who have had difficulty transitioning to a virtual format for services[9]. In Delhi, the pandemic has caused tensions between Muslims and Hindus to escalate, with the Hindu population claiming the virus was brought to the area by the Muslims [10]. The pandemic has also had economic consequences in North India. Despise these problems, the government is working closely with temple leaders and the public to find solutions in the area.

Structural and Interpersonal Caste Violence by Bonnie Duff

The interplay between COVID-19 and India’s caste system has resulted in higher levels of health risk for lower-caste populations, as well as increased physical violence and danger caused by members of upper-castes. Neither of these types of violence are new, but both have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, and are a danger to the health, safety, and well-being of Dalits in Northern India. India’s caste system is intrinsically intertwined with religion, lifestyle, and government, and dates back thousands of years. Despite officially being a secular state since 1947, various political parties have made caste and identity politics part of their platform[11], resulting in a structural ambivalence towards the struggle of Dalits and other low-caste populations especially amidst a nation-wide health crisis. The caste system, dividing populations into hierarchical categories, from “Brahmins” (priests), all the way to the “Dalits” (also referred to as "Untouchables"), the latter of which technically exist outside the caste system that defines them, has a long history of violence and discrimination in India. While caste is not synonymous with class, it can have an effect on where one is permitted to live, what jobs one can have (ie. Dalits taking on labour-intensive work and “unclean” positions such as sanitation or waste management that are seen to compromise the purity of upper castes), and more. The primary way caste manifests in day to day life is in eating or touching water or food between castes[12], exemplifying the notions of "purity" associated with castes. Despite the 1950 constitution that outlaws caste discrimination, the approximate 200 million Dalits in India face segregation in a myriad of ways, from not being permitted to drink from the same water holes as higher-caste individuals, to eating lunch apart and using separate water fountains so as not to pollute the air with their impurity. Even in death, Dalits are often buried in separate graveyards, further segregating them in life and beyond[13].

India's Caste System, where Dalit's are the lowest, and sometimes considered to be outside of the system all together[14]

The caste system’s preoccupation with impurity and the “unclean” nature of Dalits takes on an even darker tone amidst the COVID-19 crisis in Northern India. A virus that the World Health Organization defines as “spreading primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose”[15] has major implications within the already stratified caste system in India, and the prospect of disease spread by contact raises the stakes of “untouchability” even further.

Any sociological work in India must take hierarchy into account[16], but even when considering the specialized case of the effect of coronavirus in Northern India, recognizing the intersectionality of COVID-19 and caste in research is crucial to understanding the social landscape in which this virus is taking place. India, under the caste system, has been engaging in another mode of “social distancing”  long before health guidelines were put in place in March 2020- some argue that it is critical to replace this phrase with “physical distancing”, due to the caste connotations[17].

This inter-caste tension has had serious implications for Dalits in Northern India (and beyond). In Jharkhand, two Dalit youths were recently allegedly tied to a tree and thrashed by hundreds of villagers belonging to the upper caste Yadav community[18]. Such occurrences are not limited to the pandemic, but the resurfacing of "gory" crimes against Dalits[18] have been noted by news sources since lockdown was put in place. Similarly, caste-related violence seems to have been aggravated by coronavirus in the Northern India region of Haryana, when on April 5th, three people were arrested for a violent attack on a Dalit family[19]. While caste violence is not a new phenomenon by any means, and according to the National Crime Records Bureau, Northern India’s state of Uttar Pradesh recorded a 47 per cent increase in crimes against Dalits between 2014-2018[20], these examples illuminate that there is no denying that with coronavirus anxieties running high, those that suffer the dangerous interpersonal consequences are those with less socio-economic privilege; namely, Dalits.

The violence affecting Dalits throughout COVID-19 is also structural, and is embedded in Indian society, and through the government's actions and policies with regards to the caste system. In India, the sanitation and cleaning work formally and informally employs 5 million people, 90% of which belong to the lowest Dalit subcastes[21]. Their overwhelming presence in sectors that are considered particularly dangerous during the outbreak of COVID-19 puts Dalits at a much higher risk for infection. Additionally, structural factors barring Dalits from receiving benefits that might allow for added safety measures are ever present in caste-based society. On March 26, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that all healthcare workers would be covered by health insurance for three months, and that sanitation workers would receive special insurance cover. However, according to CNN, to claim that benefit, workers need an employment card validating their status as sanitation workers, which many of them don’t have[21]. It has been seen that most Dalits especially find it "difficult to get these government ID cards or ration cards", according to Alladi Devakumar, executive secretary of Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre[21]. The structural barring of lower-caste individuals from the very initiatives that they would benefit most from is an example of structural caste violence which is undoubtedly worsened due to coronavirus when everyone is at an increased health risk. This is becoming ever present in the media, with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, an activist associated with the Bahujan Movement, reporting that “constitutional provisions have aided atrocities against the Dalit community”[18], demonstrating that it is being recognized that the government is not acting enough to lessen the dangers for Dalits amidst coronavirus.

In previous (natural) disasters facing South Asia, such as the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, caste concerns were portrayed as “unimportant” in the grand scheme of disaster relief[22]. It is not difficult to imagine similar perspectives amidst a public health crisis that has already killed over 49,000 people in India, but caste-based violence amidst crisis was not unpredicted. Years before the earthquake in 2015, humanitarian organizations warned that social inequality placed Dalits at greater risk during disasters[22], and with regards to coronavirus, organizations such as the National Campaign on Dalit Human rights have stressed the need to draw the attention of the enforcement authorities and the judiciary on discrimination and atrocities against Dalits[18]. Academics and activists alike are noticing this trend, with Sukumar Naryana, a professor of Social Exclusion at Delhi University identifying the pandemic as a reason to perpetuate violence against Dalit communities, in part due to the lack of structural concern for such atrocities within police forces in Northern India and beyond[18]. The pandemic does not target people along caste-lines, but violence enacted by the state as well as other individuals certainly aggravates the affect of COVID-19 in Dalit communities.

'Informal' Workers & the Pandemic by Mukta Chachra

'Stranded' Migrant Workers during the lockdown outside the New Delhi railway station. No wages and work and public transport led to a huge migrant worker crisis [23]

4 months after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, on July 28th about 20 different workers’ unions were seen mobilising outside the labour office in Mini Secretariat, Gurgaon. For the newly formed Gharelu Kamgar Mahila union, (domestic worker women’s union) this mobilisation came after long hours of organising domestic workers amidst the coronavirus pandemic and government lockdown.[24] Their immediate demands for all domestic workers in their union include being given 10kg of grains per month and all other kitchen necessities to cook and make food, along with 7500rs in cash given to all per month.[24] These simple demands deeply reflect their struggles of trying to manage daily expenses for themselves and their families, and just struggling to ‘survive.’ Most domestic workers were laid off as the nationwide lockdown was declared on March 24th, they were not given any paid leave, and none of the upper-caste and class households they worked at bothered to even give a call to see if they were okay.[24] Without wages and work, the hope was to get rations and other provisions from the government. Many google forms were filled over the course of a few months in anticipation of some much needed relief- but nothing came. A couple of times, the police came to hand out some food rations in their communities, but this was not well received at all, given their harassment towards the domestic workers and their children.[24]

According to a survey by ActionAid India, only about 13% of the country’s domestic workers have access to sufficient food ever since the lockdown.[7] 68% stated they are in debt.[7] Given the “informal” nature of their work- no written contract, no social security coverage etc. they are made vulnerable to exploitation from their employers who don’t give fair wages, and are also excluded from government laws and benefits.[25] For domestic workers who are mainly women from oppressed castes, the intersections of gender and caste, along with their “migrant worker” status- given that most of them migrate from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal to work in Delhi NCR, adds to how they are “valued” by a corporate and casteist country.

This state of affairs is common to most ‘informal’ workers in the region as well. Street vendors, security guards, rickshaw pullers, garbage collectors, sanitation workers, construction workers, have been more worried about starvation rather than the coronavirus. This informal economy employs almost 90% of India’s workforce.[26] It also must be noted that most of these workers are migrant workers. In north India, peoples from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Bengal migrate to big cities such as New Delhi and Kolkata for work, and these are usually peoples who are ‘landless’ workers- those who do not own land or own very small holdings.[27] After the pandemic lockdown, they were ‘stuck’ in cities with no wages, leading to a huge ‘migrant worker crisis’, where many were forced to walk or cycle back home since no public transport was operational.[27] This was heavily covered in the media, where stories of people walking back home were seen as “inspirational” to an upper caste audience, and the idea of home was portrayed as a safe sanctuary.

Amongst these articles, in their journeys back home, many videos of police harassment and violence came up, along with videos of migrant workers being sprayed with chemicals- and these are just glimpses into the kinds of dehumanisation and oppression faced by ‘informal’ migrant workers.[28]

Even while living in New Delhi, the capital city of a hegemonic power in South Asia, their ways of knowing are devalued and peripheralised, their areas of residence are considered ‘remote’ by upper-caste and upper-class households, and their spaces and identities are reduced to being ‘marginalised.’[29] There have been a number of news articles on the ‘plight of domestic workers’ or the ‘conditions of the informal workers’ and although unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, these commentaries are not new. “Informal” sector workers have been placed in the margins by those in positions of power for years on end. Any crisis that hits, impacts their ability to earn the most. This clearly indicates how, although immediate relief and rehabilitation is essential, there needs to be a radical structural change in organising and in peoples’ thinking around social and ecological justice.

However, given current narratives around the ‘informal’ workers, dominant forms of power dynamics are usually reinforced. To be resilient and categorised as a ‘survivor’ is often romanticised by academics and the media to such an extent that it ignores many complexities, running the risk of only viewing trauma, reducing identities to trauma, and dehumanising folks who have faced it.[30] None of the articles about domestic workers or other migrant workers published during the time of COVID-19, have actually been written by a person from those  communities. Stories published about the struggles of informal sector workers are usually written by outsider researchers, and while this dynamic is important and cannot be done away with, it does not usually allow for peoples and communities in articulating their collective trauma on their own terms. Given how current neoliberal systems thrive on a competitive market, this competition comes down to reporting, publishing, and even aid and relief work.[31]

Stories are powerful in shaping and nurturing world views, but who gets to write stories and who does not? How are the stories told and how can they be told? Is the writing through a trauma-informed lens, is there an appropriation of experiences? These are some questions that can be kept in mind while reading or writing pieces about communities or peoples who have faced trauma. In terms of the systems of casteism, inequality, discrimination and so on, only collective anti-caste and class action, led by Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi peoples can effectively tackle such systemic violence. In regards to the pandemic in North India, immediate efforts require a distribution of resources and rations, but a sustainable effort would need a redistribution of power at all levels, along with transformations in how the economy, work, and peoples are organised.

The Effects of COVID-19 on North Indian Hindu Culture by Anthony Prpic

In India, religion is seen as a marker of community and cultural identity. It is intertwined intricately with caste and holds great importance in society[32]. Although India is a secular state, the majority of its citizens follow the practices of Hinduism[33], with over 75% reporting to be a member of the Hindu temple [8]. The impact of COVID-19 on Hinduism has been widely felt throughout Northern India, as many temples around the area[34] were forced to close down due to the nature of the religion, which involves large gatherings with many people in close contact [35]. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic alone, many Hindu celebratory days have passed without large services, including Janmashtami and the festival of Ramanavami[9] [36].

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the gathering at the foundation stone laying ceremony of Ram Temple.

In North India, Hindu temples have turned into spots of controversy, as the government is still unsure whether or not to let mass groups of people into the temples. Further, followers of the Hindu faith are becoming restless with the government's indecision. In the North Indian state of Jharkhand, this issue was taken to the supreme court, as the public was unhappy with the court's decision to force worshippers to practice darshan in a virtual capacity[37]. Closures in other parts of North India have been warranted, however, as the head priest for the Ram Temple in Uttar Pradesh was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 on August 13th, 2020[38]. Before this diagnosis, however, Narendra Modi (pictured right) attended the Ram Temple to attend a foundation laying stone ceremony. This visit to Uttar Pradesh came just days after his interior minister contracting COVID-19[39].Thus, there has been significant difficulty deciding firmly on precautions to take regarding Hindu temples, as in some cases, these temples could become possible hotspots for infection. The uncertainty has also led to violent encounters. In West Bengal, worshippers attempting to celebrate a groundbreaking ceremony at a Hindu temple clashed with local police. The state is still in a total lockdown, and the refusal to allow religious ceremony is making some citizens unhappy[40].

COVID-19 has also increased tension across faiths in North India. Throughout recent history, there have been many clashes between the Muslim and Hindu populations in India, many of them ending in violence. These tensions have not lowered, as still today there are many communities across the country that contain both Hindu and Muslim populations[41]. Although a majority of the region practices Hinduism, there is still a large Muslim minority throughout the country [8]. The Hindu population in North India, specifically in Delhi, is blaming the Muslim minority for the outbreak of COVID-19. Upon the health ministry suggesting that the Islamic population could be at fault, a strong wave of anti-Muslim behaviour broke out in Delhi, including attacks in mosques and assault on the street[42]. Many of the accusations are specifically pointed at Tablighi Jamaat, a muslim missionary group. The group travelled to Malaysia in February for an event, and subsequently held an event in Delhi which paralleled the outbreak of coronavirus in North India [10]. Many top executives are also presenting Islamophobic fronts, as a top Facebook executive in India was put in a position where he would have to invoke hate speech rules to remove a post berating Indian muslims. Instead, he opted to leave the post active, creating further conflict, especially in Delhi[43].

The COVID-19 outbreak also made it difficult to uphold other Hindu traditions. In the Hindu faith, it is custom to be cremated after death, with the ashes scattered in a place of meaning. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, however, crematoriums were having trouble keeping up with the increasing number of deceased people being sent to then. In New Delhi, Nigambodh Ghat, one of the largest crematoriums in the city, had to send bodies back to the mortuaries because of their inability to keep up with the pandemic[44]. Further, in the city of Delhi, the number of COVID-19 cases created the need to make "COVID only" cremation sites, in order to put less people at risk of contracting the virus. Now that the number of cases is dipping, however, these people are starting to face financial troubles, and the move is being made to remove the COVID-19 only cremation sites [45].

The pandemic has also made it difficult for small business and other lesser ventures to find economic success. In West Bengal, artisans, clay makers, and other artistic businesses usually find success and popularity around Janmashtami, as they make molds and outfits for the Lord Krishna, which are sold to temples and other areas of devotion during this time. These business are all incurring significant losses during this time[46].

Despite the tension, violence, and Islamophobia present in North India during the pandemic, some cultural traditions have been able to continue peacefully, while other solutions across the country have been found. Janmashtami was celebrated peacefully and successfully on August 12th. No devotees were allowed in the temples, and millions watched the ceremony virtually. In Delhi, The ISKCON temple allowed a very limited number of visitors on an invite-only basis. Upon arrival, it was mandatory to take a temperature test (for possible COVID-19 symptoms) and hand sanitizers were readily available around the temple[47]. In Uttar Pradesh, many priests have acknowledged the importance of distancing, so that the traditions may resume peacefully. Further, a former monk in Utter Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, planned a large nine day feast to celebrate the Hindu holy week. Rather than fighting to keep it alive amidst the pandemic, however, Adityanath acknowledged the threat of the pandemic and urged the general public to stay home safely[8].

Although there have been many clashes in North India among the Hindu population, the government, the temple leaders, and the Muslim minority, many have tried their best to be compliant and resilient in the tough times surrounding COVID-19. Though restrictions are being slowly lifted, the government is still making sure that religion and belief systems in the area do not amplify the difficulties the country is facing further.

Youth's Struggle in Accessing Essential Health Services by Rayan Khan

The graph illustrates the young nature of India's population as the average age is 29.4 yrs, and that the majority of the population fall into the working class age group (25-64)

The intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unmet provision of mental and physical health services has highlighted the hardships faced by the North Indian youth. They have largely been unaccommodated as most resources have been redirected to the older population. This is particularly significant in India as half of its population is under the age of 25 and 65% under the age of 35[48]. The graph on the right represents the young nature of India's population. That is why the impact of the coronavirus on the Indian youth is a significant matter as it affects the majority of the Indian population. The two primary areas of concern for the Indian youth’s health today is the inadequate access to health care services and the lack of mental health services.

Population Foundation India is a national NGO at the forefront of policy advocacy and research on population issues in India. They recently conducted two telephonic assessment studies with young people with the objective to assess their knowledge, attitudes and perceptions regarding the pandemic. The survey accurately represents the younger demographic of India’s North as it was conducted in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. The respondents comprised a total of 66% and 34% of females and males respectively[49].

Impact on Physical Health

The impact on the youth’s physical health has been significant especially for women. The survey has concluded that access to essential health care services has become extremely restricted as the health system has shifted its priority to containing the pandemic. As such, the medical needs of young people, specifically women, have been largely unmet. Access to non-COVID related health services, such as fertility treatment has been limited due to the increased demand in healthcare providers. Almost all doctors are tasked to treat COVID-19 patients in India as there is a shortage of health care providers in India. Furthermore, the increased demands for face masks, ventilators and other COVID-related products have constrained supply chains which has caused widespread shortages in the provision of non-COVID related drugs and products such as contraceptives, sanitary pads and personal protective equipment. The survey suggests that 58% of women under 18 years of age have reported an unmet need for sanitary pads[49].

Village Health Nutrition Day is a government funded health care provider for villagers. The service has been temporarily discontinued as most relief efforts are redirected to containing the pandemic. As a result, Auxiliary Nurse Midwives whom mostly cater to medical needs at the village level have been unable to do so. This is quite significant as the usual beneficiaries of these services have not been able to access essential medical services such as ante-natal care and immunization services. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of adequate information amongst villagers, who are less informed regarding the true risks associated with COVID-19 and are therefore more reluctant to seek medical attention at health facilities out of fear of being infected[49].

In an effort to better interpret this evidence, one can draw a parallel between the decision by the Indian Government to discontinue the VHND and the decisions made by international NGOs in the aftermath of the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami regarding what type of relief to provide. This is because international NGOs put an onus on spending money on certain type of relief that would “fit with Western Donors’ visions of what relief should be”[50], as opposed to engaging in less visible, more indirect forms of relief. This framework provides that resources may be redirected inefficiently due to underlying agendas. In parallel with the Government of India’s decision, it is apparent that their underlying agenda is to comfort the wider Indian population by solely focusing on containing the pandemic, which has dominated news headlines and media globally. Another agenda put forth is also the promotion of India’s global standing in terms of its ability to contain the pandemic. As such, the Government of India shouldn’t divert funds from programs like the VHND that already provide essential health services that are unrelated to the on-going pandemic to beneficiaries who would otherwise be as much at risk as an unattended COVID-19 patient.

Impact on Mental Health

Mental health issues have long been ignored or brushed under the rug in the wider Indian community, especially during the lockdown, where the North of India saw a spike in depression within its younger population. One in four young people in Uttar Pradesh has experienced depression during lockdowns coupled with increased levels of social media usage and anxiety due to joblessness[51]. This has become a prevalent issue within several North Indian states due to the lack of mental health services in both rural and urban areas.

Furthermore, an increase in domestic workload as a result of the lockdown has exacerbated the mental anxieties experienced by the Indian youth, and young women in particular. In Uttar Pradesh, 96% of female respondents experienced an increase in domestic workload, of which 68% were below the age of 18, and of which 89% unsuccessfully sought mental anxiety relief[51]. This highlights the correlation between increased domestic workloads and depression, as well the lack of adequate mental health support in the region.

Uma Narayan mentioned that women can push forward “feminist politics by working with other women and participating in political activities designed to”[52] remedy problems faced by women such as women’s health. She added that this should be done so that these issues become part of the “national political landscape”[52]. The framework provided is that women can work together to help push feminist agendas aimed at mending issues face by them, forward and under the scope of national attention. If we were to apply this to the current issue revolving around mental health faced in North India, it is clear that young women can try to improve access to online or offline safe spaces for mental support, by voicing their concerns unitedly through petitions for example. This would help bring their plight to the attention of policy makers that can in turn help accommodate their mental concerns by providing adequate support. In fact, promising signs of recognition were shown when the joint secretary in the ministry of health, Dr Manohar Agnani stated that "it is unfortunate that due to the pandemic, we have had to pool our resources to fight Covid-19, but both adolescent health and reproductive health are a priority for us"[53]. In contrast, the earthquakes that struck Nepal in 2015 highlighted how issues such as gender inequality and mental anguish were undermined in the midst of a natural disaster[54]. The COVID-19 pandemic has still managed to overshadow the mental health issues faced by the Indian population as a whole, as the focus of the government’s relief efforts are centred on treating those that are impacted by the novel coronavirus.


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