Obdurate defence finance bureaucrats sinking atmnirbharta projects

[Modi at AeroIndia 2023]

Striving to make India a technology power self-reliant in armaments in the 21st Century and aware that the public sector never was, is not now, and never will be in a position to realize this grand objective by itself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at AeroIndia 2023 in Bangaluru urged the burgeoning private sector companies in the country “to invest in India’s defence sector as much as possible”. He reminded them that their investment “will create new avenues for …business in many countries …apart from India [and that] there are new possibilities and opportunities” they “should not let go”.

Fine words from Modi laden with sentiment that over the last several years has fueled his atmnirbharta policy. If defence self-sufficiency could be obtained by rousing rhetoric and public exhortations alone, India would long ago have attained it. The problem is the eco-system for technology creation and innovation is being methodically stifled by officials of the over-bureaucratized Indian state. Despite the Prime Minister’s harangues, and PMO’s pressure and pushing and pulling, the Government of India system is such that the various agencies in it have neither uniformly followed the PM’s atmanirbharta directives nor, more importantly, internalized them. It has left the bureaucratic/technocratic nabobs ruling their small fiefs in innumerable ministries and departments of government free to impede at will the atmnirbharta initiatives. They selectively use old rules and regulations still on the books to justify decisions even when these have been superceded by new instructions! In other words, they cherry pick the rule and regulation to torpedo projects and programmes promoting atmnirbharta.

Take the case of a critical Tactical Communications (T-Com) project the Indian army has embarked on to obtain a secure, mobile, battlefield telecommunications net with system integrity for deployment along the borders, especially useful on the overlong Line of Actual Control in the mountains. System integrity is assured by having at its core technology that both hardware- and software-wise is ABSOLUTELY free of embedded bugs and malware — something that can only be guaranteed if it is wholly of Indian origin. Otherwise, the frontline army formations equipped with foreign tech will be as exposed and vulnerable to enemy cyber atacks and foreign penetration and manipulation as the rest of the country is by China’s Ministry of State Security.

This is so because the Indian Government did not display — surprise! surprise! — the strategic nous and foresight to prevent Huawei and other Chinese companies from freely selling at cut rate prices 4G gear developed by them with massive Chinese state subsidies, to public sector communications companies — BSNL and VSNL, and also to numerous private sector firms who entered the business some 20-odd years ago. As a result, the nationwide mobile telephone system, parceled out among several private sector firms and majorly based on Chinese telecommunications tech, serves as remotely activated intelligence sensors/platforms in situ for Beijing to exploit. China can monitor communications within India, subvert the Indian and state government decision processes, shut down power grids and industry, disrupt the economy by throwing the market and financial institutions into turmoil, and otherwise ruin this country at any time. This is Suntzu’s basic principle of strategy of winning without war at work!

The communications technology in question is radio telephony and involves voice/information modulated on to radio waves at radio frequencies meshing with internet protocol, etc. The technology to convert voice and data and to propagate this package via radio waves, is at the centre of it. It is used by all advanced militaries. The Indian armed forces are only now seeking it. Civilian mobile telephony is facilitated by static towers dotting the urban terrain and the countryside to which are attached “networking boxes” for voice/data conversion and radio propagation The military, however, has to have masts with antennae connected to these boxes that are latched on to mobile platforms to enable forwardly placed military units within range to access, via mobile telephones, a ready, all-weather, 2-way encrypted channel of communications with the unit commander/command centre. A collection of such mobile platforms can effectively cover an extended border to subserve tactical military operations.

The Indian army has woken up to the need for such a T-Com system. A ‘Project Management Office’ in the Signals Directorate, Army HQrs, a couple of years back drew up the military specifications (milspecs) for such a battlefield communications system, and companies were invited to tender initially for a “sample” system of 200 “networking boxes” connected to 10,000 mobile phones worth Rs 200 crores. The incentive was that on approval of technology, the winning bidder can expect to get the much larger contract for 5,000 of these boxes, each costing rupees one crore, for a deal valued at Rs 5,000 crores.

Some 22 companies entered the competition, 20 of them system integrators — meaning they have purchased various commercially available tech and components mostly from abroad and cobbled together a T-Com system that meets the milspecs, and involves no original, proprietory, technology of their own. Only two companies in the competition are Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) with their own patented technology, inclusive of hardware, software and the necessary algorithms. These firms — Lekha Wireless Solutions Pvt. Ltd and Signaltron, are both Bangaluru-based and in the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) category — the sort of companies Prime Minister Modi has publicly heralded as the cutting edge of the nation’s efforts to become a technology power. Signaltron even designed its own chip for its tech system!

In pre-bid meetings held last year, the two MSMEs informed the army Signals’ project management office and the Integrated Financial Adviser (IFA), Ministry of Defence — the nodal person approving this contract, that they were not in a position to meet one of the three “eligibility criteria” as per old corpus of rules that companies bidding for this contract were required to meet, namely, the one relating to the value of turnover which had to be greater than 30% of the project cost of Rs. 200 crores. This financial requirement has been superceded by a newer rule that mandates exceptions be made for MSMEs, which the IFA studiously ignored in this case. The other two criteria concerning evaluation of technology and ability to manufacture were easily met by both firms. Lekha and Signaltron were pointedly advised at these meetings to proceed regardless, and to prepare their technology for technical evaluation in February 2023.

Then, out of the blue, in end January this year, the two Indian MSMEs got a formal letter from the IFA rejecting their bids, thereby removing their technologies from even the technical evaluation stage. Incidentally, the army signals officers interfacing with these two companies had already become familiar with the technology of at least one of them, and were generally impressed by its quality and performance. In the wake of this sudden jolt, the MSMEs sought an explanation from the IFA, pleaded for meetings and, at a minimum, technical evaluation of their technologies. They received no response to repeated entreaties. Meanwhile, the formal evaluation of T-Com technologies, all of them foreign sourced, offered by the 20 other ‘system integrator’ companies, which began on February 8 ended on February 14, leaving Lekha and Signaltron the only bidders with patented and proven tech with a Valentine Day’s gift of being summarily kicked out of the technical evaluation phase and hence the bidding process as well!

In this tragic chain of events, hearteningly, the Department of Telecommunications (DOT), that was once a steadfast pusher of Huawei products, has turned the corner and is now one of the strongest supporters of indigenously-developed telecom technology. Senior DOT officials helped the two MSMEs negotiate the Byzantine maze that is the Government of India bureaucracy, opened doors for them in the Defence Ministry, and even wrote supportive letters, presumably, to the IFA. It made not the slightest difference. Indeed, it was DOT that helped Lekha to launch a pilot project for its radio-connected communications system in 100 villages in two Karnataka Districts (Tumkur and Mandya) to demonstrate its technology. More disquieting still, Lekha, a winner of the Innovation for Defence Excellence (IDEX) award in 2019, whose technology was cleared for field trials in 2021, and by next year expects to field original 5G technology, is presently outfitting 5 warships of the Indian Navy with a maritime variant of its T-Com technology in a deal worth some Rs 6 crores. If the army needed any military validation of Lekha’s technology, all the army project office had to do was inspect the underway naval project Lekha is successfully prosecuting. This was not done. Many industry-wallahs suspect the reason is lack of any real appreciation in the army of the new technology concerned with radio telephony as many in the Signals branch regard it as another version of Wi-Fi and, hence, do not want to challenge the civilian IFA’s decision!

Then again, because every department of the Indian government works in silos, and each armed service likewise functions in silos with different combat arms within each of these services functioning in their own mini-silos, no one person, no one organisation, in the entire MOD has any holistic idea of what technology is being employed where and being tested by whom, and with what results. So, every service and the IFA, under the slogan of atmnirbharta, goes off on its own in the technology arena, does its own thing! Atmnirbharta is the last thing this whole frightfully wasteful mess of a technology acquisition system has on its mind, and it doesn’t matter that it is sans vision, a long term road map, and accountability. It is also apparently beyond corrective measures, and does not give a damn for the Prime Minister’s defence self-reliance directives, dismissing it as so much political hot air, reducing Modi and his PMO, in the process, to passive spectators of this continuing boondoggle!

So, which are the companies likely to win the army’s T-Com contract? Why, two public sector units (PSUs) of course! — ECIL (Electronics Corporation of India) and BEL (Bharat Electronics Ltd). These two PSUs, not known for technology creation and innovation, have survived by doing the usual defence PSU stuff — screwdriver imported technologies, or tinker with them. In the present army’s T-Com case, ECIL and BEL are Trojan Horses for technologies from Ericsson of Sweden and Nokia of Finland, respectively. And Sweden and Finland recently joined NATO. So, if it is not China doing the damage, it will be NATO countries holding the Indian army’s battlefield-related operational command and control communications at risk. It seems the army is prepared to court such risk. Shouldn’t the Chief of the Army Staff, General Manoj Pande do something about this?

And, why, pray has the Integrated Financial Adviser, MOD, made this manifestly anti-national, anti-atmnirbharta decision? People in the know speculate that permitting Lekha and Signaltron to prove their technology and secure the T-Com deal would “open up a can of worms” because the present IFA and past incumbents in the post have over the years consistently and regularly disqualified Indian MSMEs from winning such technology contracts on the basis of the financial eligibility criterion that for obvious reasons they cannot meet (or they would not be counted among small and medium enterprises!). That there are considerations on the side offered by foreign OEMs to incentivise such decision-making cannot be ruled out, considering just how infused with corruption the entire defence procurement system is.

Disappointed and despirited, Lekha and Signaltron are being told by their contacts in MOD that the decision of the Integrated Financial Adviser, can only be reversed by “higher ups”, meaning by the PM and by Rajnath Singh who, alas, is a know-nothing, do even less cow belt politician who in technical defence matters has no clue about anything (but, if it is any consolation to anyone, is markedly better than one of his predecessors in office also from Uttar Pradesh, the late Mulayam Singh, who spent his entire tenure as Raksha Mantri kvetching about files not being translated into Hindi!).

It will require Modi and his PMO to wield the whip to bring this obdurate IFA to heel, and afford Lekha and Signaltron an opportunity to get their patented tech evaluated and approved, and to win the T-Com contract. It will help the winning MSME to scale up its capabilities for bigger, more challenging, national security tasks ahead, and send a message of hope to a down-in-the-dumps defence MSME sector. Either Modi pulls up the IFA and makes an example of him by punishing him with a posting to some far corner of the Lakshwadweep Islands where he can do little harm, or alternately hands him his retirement papers. Or, by doing nothing, prompts hordes of babus to make mincemeat of his atmanirbharta policy and programmes, leaving India exactly where it always was — a perennial arms dependency.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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35 Responses to Obdurate defence finance bureaucrats sinking atmnirbharta projects

  1. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Excellent timely article Professor Karnad. The proof of the pudding lies in its eating.

    Let’s give Modi 15 days from the publication of this article to get these indigenous companies Lekha & Signaltron the aforementioned contract.

    I can bet you my last cent that Modi won’t do anything thereby proving my point that he is just a blah blah

  2. Amit says:


    Sarkari tarkari is usually rotten! You have shown another splendid example!

  3. KK says:

    sir can we write a letter to TATA to acquire this company and bid for the project.

    Previously u told about Saankhya Labs and Tejas network and i ma happy both are under TATA (i think they acquired after ur research and well searched article about those companies)

    Please sir u use ur good office to write TATA or some MOD official and please do the needful.

  4. From V Siddhartha, former Science Adviser to Raksha Mantri

    Wed, 15 Feb at 8:10 pm

    Re”.. to get their patented tech evaluated and approved”

    If patented in India under India’s Patents(amendments) Act, firms can file injunctions. By law, ECIL and BEL will have to
    show in the legal proceedings that they are NOT violative of the patents.

    Also, I take it you know that IMPORTS of any patented devices/components is prima facie, a violation of Indian-registered patents. BUT, that can work both ways!


  5. Rajesh says:

    Good Evening Dr. Karnad, In your experience does the PMO have any feedback loop or arbitrators to pick such concerns from various sources & timely rectify it?

  6. Email from Smita Purushottam, former ambassador and Founder-President of SITARA (Science Innovation and Technology Research and Accelerator) involved in promoting indigenous technology.

    Wed, 15 Feb at 9:07 pm

    Bharat has done a great article on the heart breaking situation Lekha Wireless is faced with. Thanks for this. It is heart breaking to see our companies broken by these bureaucrats. It is also alarming because it damages National Security as you have clearly outlined in your article.


  7. A really interesting article and aneye opener, Dr Karnad, thank you for so succinctly bringing out all the facts. Now, as you say, proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let us see what (and if) the PMO does anything.

  8. Ayush says:

    You are talking about software defined radios, if I am not wrong?Should explicitly mention that.Lack of SDR’s has plagued Russian war effort in Ukraine.Their SDR’s are made from screw driving Chinese made components and thus useless in a high intensity,heavy-casualty war.BEL has been selected because they have the manufacturing capability.These two MSME’s though boasting fancy tech don’t.Same is the case for the Paninian aerospace engines startup.These people have much more brains than the likes of GTRE in DRDO but no manufacturing capability.Also you forgot to mention that the army is also laying thousands of miles of optical fibers and developing new jam-proof communication satellites.These will ensure that in the next two years or so, we will have the world’s best C2 capabilities and networked battle internet.


    Another wonderful article by Dr Karnad, pinpointing the problems in this country.

    Do you believe that the Adani saga may prevent Adani from playing the role of infrastructure builder in the South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives ?? Will this negatively impact Modi’s neighborhood calculus vis a vis China then ??

    • It very well might, though I doubt whether the Hindenburg report will be more than a blip in Adani’s rise and he’ll emerge as infrastructure acquirer and builder for the country (unlike all the Congress’ crony capitalists who profited hand over fist in the license quota raj by peddling discarded Western tech did little for the country).

  10. Sankar says:

    In the context of this column, there is a latest news about military technology concerning India in circulation:

    In my view India needs to join hands with Russia in this matter – there is no private party involved, and from past experience the Russians have shared their technology for India to develop Brahmos.

  11. Email from Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd)
    Thu, 16 Feb at 12:14 pm


    Sad to see such manipulations. Please recall that I had written similar things in my article after the ASAT launch. We are capable of producing stuff that is denied to us but incapable of producing what is available through imports for reasons that are so very obvious. I am somewhat surprised that the Project Team in the Army has not raised any objections to this. It’s within their domain and power to do so, something similar, though not concerning Atmanirbharta, that I had done as a lowly Group Captain in the MiG-21 Bis Upgrade program and the MoD agreed.

    Hope someone takes note.

    Warm regards,



    Thanks a lot for your answer Dr Karnad. With regards to the Adani saga, there are reports coming out from Bangladesh whereby Adani was selling 3 times more costly power to Bangladesh compared to what he does in India.

    I mean should Adani renegotiate this with Bangladesh and will these types of deals by Adani will allow China to entrench itself when it comes to the Indian interests in the region ?


    Dear Dr Karnad

    I would love to know your views on the Chinese C919 civilian aircraft manufacturer. I have read that the Chinese want to gradually replace the Boeing planes from the Chinese civilian aviation market (worth $1Trillion USD in the next 2-3 decades) with this C919 for their domestic aviation market. What are your thoughts on this one

  14. Gab Singh says:

    Hello Bharatji,
    If Russia had done better in the ongoing war and hammered Ukraine decisively, then would America agree to give India nuke Sub tech ?

    Thank You


    Dear Dr Karnad

    Thanks a lot for your prompt reply. It is good to hear from you that we believe in similar things.

    My analysis on the recent civilian aviation deals between India and the US/EU,

    1. I believe these deals were done to ensure the Biden administration looks the other way given the kind of pressure that the Biden administration has built upon Shri Modiji and Shri Adaniji with the BBC report and hindenburg reports, respectively. So the beleaguered Modi government wants some respite from the BBC and Adani sagas and therefore wants to offer economical concessions to the US.

    2. Another reason behind these concessions could be that the PM wish to be projected as “Vishwaguru” in the year 2023 when he heads the G20 for this year. BBC documentary and Adani sagas are potentially huge dents on that “Vishwaguru” image.

    3. This Indian approach of offering temporary economic concessions I believe is mercantile , transactional and opportunistic in nature , is completely contrary to what the Chinese have done by building up their own C919 to gradually replace Boeing in their trillion dollar domestic civilian aviation market. To summarize, the Chinese approach is strategic whereas India did adopt a transactional approach.

    I would love your views on my analysis on the Indian civilian aviation deals.

  16. Gab Singh says:

    USA offered India nuclear deal after Pakis went and smashed stuff in New York. Later on in 2008 Russia invaded Georgia and started challenging USA aggressively. This is was the main reason why USA got India into MTCR and other such cartels. So as to reduce India’s dependence on Russia for missiles and stuff. In 2014 RUssia invaded Ukraine, then USA offered India Jet engine tech and other stuff so as to wean India away from Russia. Though nothing really materialized.
    If Russia had indeed hammered Ukraine and installed a puppet government or conquered it anyway, then Russia would have reached borders of Poland, Hungary, Romania etc. This would have fundamentally changed Europe. Maybe not immediately but in later on in future. Then Poland, Romania etc would have to rethink their geopolitics. This will definitely weaken USA. India can only squeeze tech benefits from a weakened USA.

    If in future there is an alliance between Franco-Germans and Russia, then will USA offer India nuke sub tech ?
    (An alliance between Germany and Russia is the only thing that can challenge USA)

    • Amit says:

      @Gab Singh, you are right that only a weakened or a threatened US will have any inclination to share technology. However, the US does not part with tech easily and their bureaucracy and export control laws are a quagmire to navigate through (even for US personnel). So, nothing will move fast even if a political decision is made to share tech. But the threat of China is so great to US power that some tech sharing could happen in the future.

      However, India needs to keep the ongoing competition going for defence tech – with US, France, UK and Russia. Strike a deal with whichever country provides the tech at the best price. More than the US, it is Russia that could be inclined to offer more tech to India. So India should keep the Russian door open. India has to be ruthless in playing this game.

      The US has blundered big time by taking on Russia and China together. India should not make the same blunder. Only take on China (and that too because the Chinese have foolishly decided to take on the US and India together). So take the best from the West and Russia. While trying to build its own defence tech. The King’s Indian defence is on! And so far no major blunders have been made.



        I do not believe that the Chinese intended to take on the US and India at the same time. Their hands were tied after both the Trump and Biden administration decided to impose severe economic restrictions and support the Taiwan independence whereas at the same time Shri Modiji and Dovalji had decided to conquer Kashmir and join the QUAD. China sensed that the US and India are ready to join hands together and use Ladkah to capture Aksai chin and Tibet. You cannot blame them for thinking like this as they have had to endure foreign domination , humiliation for last century and half. Remember both the British India, US, Australia and Japan had conquered and destroyed Beijing in the late 19th century and early 20th century together. Those memories are still very much part of the Chinese psyche.

        So the Chinese thinking is that with both the US and India showing many signs of decay and despair (as the COVID pandemic has shown) why not take them at the same time but with different tactics ? I feel China at this moment has the upper hand as both the US and India are busy with problems like Ukraine and Kashmir/Arunachal pradesh.

      • Amit says:

        If you recall, before Doklam India was having summits with Xi Jinping trying to make good with China. So you are completely mischaracterizing Chinese behavior with India. Indian involvement in the Quad also increased only after Doklam. The Chinese have been Super stupid IMHO in their grand strategy. The US has made mistakes too which the whole world will regret.

  17. sameer says:

    This is such a shame that these two MSME companies are getting such an unfair deal. Entrepreneurship in India suffers because of the babus and MSME’s who are at the mercy of their babudom. Indian bureaucracy was created by the British to extract as much resources and goods as possible in the most efficient way. Looks like it is still functioning in a similarly. The whole system is in need of a top down reform.

  18. sameer says:

    Sir, As an Indian citizen, is there anything at all that I can do to raise more awareness about this? Write letters, make some noise on twitter? Have you contacted any newspapers The Hindu, Indianexpress, TimesofIndia etc and tried to have this published?. We need more attention on this issue.

    Thank You.

  19. Gab Singh says:

    @Amit, Yes it is true Russia is willing to share critical defence tech with India. But you got to do some cost-benefit analysis of the what we get from Russia. We are getting 1960s era nuke sub tech from Russia, but in return India had to buy Su-30,
    T-90 tanks etc . Now Su-30MKI is based on S-27, which Soviets developed in 1970s and manufactured thousands of them. By the time we bought Su-30, it was a mature product. But S-30 is a good aircraft, on the other hand T-90 is a complete disaster as the ongoing war has proven. That era of the 1990s is over.
    Now the nuke sub tech deal with Russia is not much favourable to India. As a qui pro quo India may have to buy Su-57 or T-14 armata. This will seriously hinder development of India’s own industry. Now India has reached a point where we can make low-tech weapons on its own and Russia wants India to buy almost everything. Large number of DRDO’s projects have been scuttled by Russia. Arjun Tank, infantry combat vehicle are just a few examples. HAL’s IMRH should have flown a decade ago. The list is endless.

    USA is generations ahead of Russia and what India can make. So India buying weapons from USA and making whatever INdia can on its own is much better. I do not see USA scuttling DRDO’s projects at the scale what Russians are doing.

    • Amit says:

      @Gab Singh, totally agree that US tech is generations ahead, but there are technologies that can be beneficial from Russia. For example hypersonics. Even with lower tech, Indians can innovate and develop indigenous systems. I think our sub program/aircraft carrier program and rocket development programs are such examples of leveraging Russian tech.

      For advanced engine tech it is almost impossible to get the US to part with latest tech. And one can forget about nuclear sub propulsion tech. The UK is the only country they have parted that tech to. And now Australia in AUKUS. But maybe with the threat of China they could do this with India, though still unlikely.

      That’s why this is a difficult problem for India to solve. These tech are difficult to develop unless you have an innovation eco system which India still lacks.

      The other option is to go for asymmetric weapon systems, which India has started to focus on .

      However, Indian defense industry has been fed so much sarkari tarkari for so many decades, that it won’t be easy to become healthy fast!

    • Amit says:

      @Gab Singh, Another point on US tech transfer to India. If you notice their rationale for selling to India they always mention that they want to wean India away from Russian arms. This is an example of US sarkari tarkari being sold to India. India should NEVER agree to US dictates on Russia. They have blundered on their grand strategy. It’s not India’s problem to correct.

      India has to keep Russia on its side so that the US does not take the whole world into a disaster and has an easier job in containing China (at least till Russia openly allies with China or becomes too pro China). Yet they have to get the US to part with top tech. Not an easy act to execute!

  20. Gab Singh says:

    @Amit, It is true that it will be near impossible to get tech help from USA in Submarines, Jet Engine etc.



    Now that you have been bringing about Doklam I must say QUAD was present even before Modiji came to power. Also please keep in mind China has been opposing Indian participation in the QUAD even before Modiji came to power.

    Also since you bring out the issue of Doklam, I believe this was the main issue of boundary negotiations between China and Bhutan so what made India intervene here without even asking for the permission of the Bhutanese who are nothing but a client state of Delhi ? There will be no Doklam issue had India not intervened here between Bhutan and China like she did in Doklam in 2017.

    I think the biggest issue was the unilateral decision by India in 2019 to conquer Ladakh and Shri Amit Shahji declaration in the Indian parliament of using Ladakh to conquer Aksai Chin. This was the statement that broke the camel’s back in the Chinese understanding between India and China.

  22. Amit says:

    @Debanjan, the way you are talking, it seems like India should have done nothing and sat back as the Chinese built infrastructure at Doklam, just because it was in ‘Bhutanese’ territory. That’s nonsense. The Chinese have been aggressive on the LAC since 2010 and perhaps even before. India was very circumspect about the Quad before Doklam, but continued Chinese aggression and lack of respect for India pushed their wolf warrior diplomats to think that India will be a pushover. They miscalculated. And now will pay the price for their miscalculation. The Chinese have also miscalculated with other middle powers. It’s just a foolish grand strategy. I want to destroy the myth that the Chinese strategists are smart. They are not.

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