The Untapped Potential of Helicopters in India

When I started my helicopter career in India, we were often put on hold to accommodate fixed wing traffic. “Orbit at too-fife miles due fixed wing arrival” was a regular call from ATC. No complaints since it only added a few extra minutes to the log book of a young naval aviator.

Cut to the new millennium. I was a student TP at the Indian Air Force Test Pilots School, tasked to test the stability and control margins of the Alouette for ALE role. In 2001, let alone what all it entailed, even the acronym ALE was alien to many of us.

The Dice is Still Loaded

Welcome to 21st Century India – one of the fastest growing economies of the world, aiming to become the world’s third biggest aviation market by 2025. Not much has changed for helicopters. Rotary and fixed wing operations are still seen as mutually exclusive in the Indian airspace. The rotor is still a pariah. In India, Airborne Law Enforcement (ALE) – like many other potential applications of the helicopter – still remains on paper. Today, I fly the RNP 0.3-capable AW 139 with a cruise speed of 140 knots but still do 720-degree VFR orbits to accommodate Cessna 152s.

Helicopters – Where do we stand?

India – a country of more than 1.3 billion – has less than 200 helicopters in the civil NSOP segment. About 40 in the private category, 15 with the Para Military and 25 with State Governments and PSUs make up the rest in a total less than 300 civil helicopters in the whole country. The city of Sau Paulo in Brazil has more than 450 helicopters. EMS provider Air Methods of USA has more helicopters (400 spread over 300 bases) than the whole of India.

Helicopters are still nascent in India and a far cry from United States and its 10,000+ civil helicopters. Even so, the fact that we have only one helicopter per 50 lac citizens is a difficult statistic to digest. There are stark contrasts. In a country where more than 20% of the population subsists on less than two dollars a day, Bollywood superstars take a helicopter from Juhu to Vasai, a distance of less than 50 Kms, to escape Mumbai traffic.

All Air, No Concrete

As per a 2015 study, this figure is expected to grow to 800 in the next two decades. Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) is expected to be the main enabler of this growth. Ministry of Civil Aviation’s (MoCA) website states “the primary objective of RCS is to facilitate / stimulate regional air connectivity by making it affordable”. Financial support in terms of a Viability Gap Funding (VGF) for limited period is also proposed to be provided to stimulate regional connectivity.

The incumbent government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has championed pro-aviation schemes like RCS and UDAN to put flying within the common man’s reach. But without an overhaul of the entire AAI/DGCA framework, airspace management & upgrade, improvement in ease & cost of doing aviation business in India and infrastructure scaling, it may only end up compounding the mess. Often, incentives given by one hand (NCAP 2016) are taken away by the other (CARs / Operations Circulars).

Industry veterans fear this will only increase the discrimination and pain points for helicopters in India.

Whither HAA & HEMS?

On 10 Apr 2018, Tankila Ahmed, a 40-year old pregnant woman from Malegaon in rural Maharashtra died after battling for life for two days. She was being shifted overnight to Mumbai for treatment when the vehicle met with an accident after entering the city; reportedly, the exhausted driver fell asleep at the wheel. Such stories though infinitely sad are not uncommon here. A Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) could have saved her life. But even as I write, an Indian enterprise that announced Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) with much fanfare in 2016 finds itself in palliative care minus the intravenous infusion of investor support. American partner Air Medical Group Holdings Inc. (AMGH) pulled the plug and recalled two out of their fledgling fleet of three Airbus H130 helicopters.

It’s not hard to figure why. In a country where more than 70% of the population lives in villages, 74% of the doctors reside in cities, serving the balance 30% urban population. State-run healthcare system is in shambles, marked by rampant absenteeism, crumbling infrastructure and unqualified RMPs. In such a setting, it’s not hard to view the helicopter ambulance as an expensive toy. Though the government has announced healthcare reform plans like the National Health Protection Scheme and Rashtriya Swasthya Bhima Yojna, there are no subsidies or state sponsors yet for helicopter-based aeromedical transportation (AMT).

Sources in the government say there are far greater priorities. Rural hospitals don’t have enough doctors or ambulances with basic life-saving kits. Issues such as family planning, immunization, infant mortality, maternal health, prevention of communicable diseases, etc. take precedence – and why not. Throw in a wet blanket of stringent compliance for off-base landings and clearances within the golden hour (borrowed from more evolved countries), both functionality and viability of HAA (often misconstrued as HEMS) was challenged from the word go.

Operating airfield to airfield brings helicopter AMT in direct conflict with fixed-wing charters – a battle the rotors are bound to lose. As on date, night helicopter operations are an exception, not the norm in India. According to sources, 70-80% of HAA requests came at night; nobody can guarantee a night heli-lift in India to/from any but operational airports.

One doesn’t even have to be in government to throw out helicopters. Helicopter professionals this writer spoke with held forth the ‘life is cheap here; this won’t work’ argument. I reject this line of fatalistic thinking.

A ‘Mountain’ of Challenges

It may be premature to write off the Indian HAA or HEMS story but any such entrepreneurial or humanitarian venture is bound to come up against the bureaucratic quagmire of over-regulation, airspace congestion and a pathological indifference towards matters rotary. As per a CAPA India Outlook of 2018 on Airport Capacity, the main airports in India are already operating close to capacity and will reach saturation within 2-5 years even with a conservative CAGR of 10% per annum (actual growth is expected to be closer to 12.5%). This will drive a further wedge into helicopter operations.

Helicopter operators must explore innovative options or shift their focus to under-served areas or business segments where fixed wing operations are either ruled out, unviable or constrained.

Minimum Government, Maximum Governance: What about Helicopters?

The incumbent government came to power on the back of many ideas that promised removal of red tape and facilitation of innovation and entrepreneurship. But four years down, what has changed for helicopters? Growth of the helicopter business is marginal, even negative, as per industry sources. An air of indifference and over-regulation still pervades. There is little room for self-regulation or autonomy; not surprising for a country where corruption and mistrust has spawned the ‘prohibited unless cleared by a rubber stamp’ culture in aviation. This can only be culled by moving paper and rubber stamp approvals online – one of the provisions under NCAP 2016.

Try downloading your current Class 1 medical status from the DGCA website and you will see where we stand today.

The contrast with FAA is hard to ignore. Acting as a facilitator in all matters aviation, the FAA is proactive and forward-focused. They have a social media presence across channels, holds free safety briefings, interactive ‘safer skies through education’ webinars, and runs numerous other initiatives to promote and encourage aviation. Compare this with India where abundant bureaucracy and a ‘watchdog’ model of regulation persists. Getting into the helicopter business for a newbie can be daunting. It is an exclusive ‘members-only club’ where connections and deep pockets rule. Small operators and start-ups can get lost in the byzantine regulatory and compliance cul-de-sacs.

Well, if you want to sit on the aviation high table with USA and China, something has to give. 2025 is not far away. Helicopters are slow, inefficient machines that work best providing ‘vertical lift’ solutions. Regulations are like guitar strings. Be careful who’s tuning them.

Safety and Security Overkills

Aviation industry veteran Shakti Loomba, in a no-holds-barred interview (read it here) lamented that safety and security have become two ‘holy cows’ nobody can touch in India. Consider the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security’s (BCAS) six-day initial AVSEC course for issue of Airport Entry Permits (to be followed by a 2-day refresher capsule every two years). A company ID means nothing here. Any person working within any airport needs an AEP which the BCAS will not issue or renew without the AVSEC endorsement. Imagine the domino effect such a move will have on Indian heli-operators already reeling under wafer-thin margins. Multiply crew numbers with 6-days overtime pay or absence from work, course fees, to & fro travel, boarding etc and compare this to other countries where such courses are run online in a matter of hours. Who will pay for this extravaganza? What is this if not over-regulation and licence-permit raj?

Such excesses will only serve to elbow out pilots and supporting crew from future business models, paving the way for unmanned options. Not a bad idea either. Why fight something that is dying anyway?

Urban Mobility

Even as we speak, the conventional, piloted helicopter’s existence is under ‘threat’ from a host of emerging options like drones, eVTOL vehicles and unmanned aerial systems. It is only a matter of time before many things that were once the exclusive domain of helicopters yield to more efficient & cheaper options. We in India may therefore totally miss the bus …or the helicopter, if you will.

Airbus, for instance, is heavily invested in the concept of ‘urban air mobility’ to ease traffic congestion major cities around the world grapple with. Leveraging vertical lift through an electric-driven ‘propeller and duct’ system, CityAirbus plans to take the shorter route over the heads of conventional urban mobility solutions (first flight expected end-2018).

A single passenger, self-piloted aircraft ‘Vahana’ developed by Airbus’s technology partner A^3 is expected to be rolled out for demonstration by 2020.

Voom – also a product of A^3  – is an experimental helicopter ride-sharing project launched in Sau Paulo, Brazil in Apr 2016. In an interview published on the Airbus website, Uma Subramanian, CEO of Voom says “we did a 30-day trial in 2016 in São Paolo, which totally exceeded our wildest expectations. In total, we completed more than 600 journeys and flew nearly 1,100 passengers”. They are all set to roll out this service in Sau Paulo and then scale up to other cities and other parts of the world. The second edition of Uber Elevate summit was recently held at Los Angeles, CA where the focal point was future of urban aviation.

Who is thinking about leveraging vertical lift for those who deal with the present-day horrors of urban mobility in Indian cities almost on a daily basis? Mass transportation and bullet trains are fine; but what about the 130 dollar billionaires, tens of thousands of multi-millionaires & millions of ‘Uber-rich’ in India?

Thumby Aviation, a private helicopter operator from India headed by veteran helicopter pilot Capt KNG Nair, recently launched helicopter shuttles between Bengaluru airport & Electronic City with a Bell 407. They plan an average six round trips per day during daylight hours, timed towards peak business hours. They will get you there in under 15-minutes for INR 4130. Their competition is the ubiquitous Uber, Ola, airport shuttle buses and car rentals who take over two hours.

But the real threat to his business lies elsewhere. Consider the huge constraints of compliance, VFR, capacity, scaling, taxation (ground transports thrive on diesel that was government subsidized till 2014 for agricultural work) and unpredictable policy changes. The 18% GST per seat itself is equal to one of the competing modes of transportation. The city has more than 90 rooftop helipads; but only one is cleared by DGCA. A similar service launched with much fanfare in 2008 by Deccan Aviation ran aground in no time.  One hopes the climate both literally and metaphorically is better this time.

Real Estate for MRO / Helistrips

Private players are stepping in with novel solutions to the operations and MRO conundrum. Thakur Vibhuti Singh Deora’s Microlight Aviation Pvt Ltd, is one such story. He built his 100-acre private airfield ‘Go Fly Zone’ near Jaipur brick-by-brick over last 10 years. Sitting strategically outside the control zones of Jaipur (33 nautical miles as the crow flies) and Delhi (93 Nm), GFZ provides an attractive alternative to operators looking for a helipad and hangar space for parking, enroute halts or helicopter MRO (CAR 145). At times, he says, there are more helicopters parked here than at IGI Airport, New Delhi or India’s latest, integrated Rohini Heliport at Greater Noida. More power to Thakur and his Go Fly Zone. We need more of you.

Go Fly Zone – Private answers to public problems!

Cash Cows

There are many areas in India where the helicopter’s competition is not an aeroplane but mules and palanquins (palkhi). Vertical lift comes into its own in the hills of northern India. In the hill shrine of Vaishnodevi for instance, two light helicopters do non-stop dawn to dusk shuttles of 8-10 minutes each from Katra helipad at the base of the hill to Sanjhi Chhat, a helipad 3000 feet above, near the shrine . A successful business model is up and running for many years, providing a steady revenue stream for operators and taking much load off the mules, palkhis and the Shrine Board’s shoulders.

Helicopter shuttles at the hill shrine of Vaishnodevi

Such operations thrive during pilgrimage season in the hilly states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir where the helicopter’s versatility stands unchallenged, contributing almost 25% of the total civil helicopter flying every year. Offshore industry is another segment that flies an estimated 70% of the industry’s total. While the rest of the world is recovering from a recession in the oil & gas industry, state-owned ONGC has set a US$ 2.64 billion CapEx target for drilling wells in 2018-19.

Heli-pilgrimage and offshore companies in India are hiring pilots and support crew even in these hard times. Practically, these two segments are propping up an otherwise infirm civil helicopter business in India.

How about identifying more such niche markets and creating others? It takes just one disruptor to turn the tables on conventional solutions. Is there room for complacency?

Joyrides Anyone?

Every day a Robinson R44 flies short joy rides offering a panoramic view of Mumbai’s skyline for couples, families and aviation enthusiasts. A 10-minute flight costs INR 3480 per person but the experience is enthralling and people keep coming back for more. There are many such sweet spots that dot the 7500+ kms of Indian coastline; not to talk of the interiors. As per MoCA, 97% of foreign tourists arrive in India by air. Tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner. Yet, many cities and tourist destinations are poorly connected with the nearest airports. Why?

Honeymooners and tourists flock to the hills all year long. But the treacherous drive uphill or downhill is a big dampener and chances are, you may have your first “not tonight, honey. I have a headache” moment. How much would you be willing to shell out for a 15-min helicopter shuttle if one was available? But there are none; even for Indians who don’t think twice about paying INR 80,000 for the latest iPhone.

Improving Connectivity of Remote, Inaccessible Areas

Helicopters are a lifeline for large swathes of northern and north-eastern India. These states have ongoing contracts with companies for running helicopter shuttles as per a scheduled program through state-owned Pawan Hans Limited (PHL) and other private NSOP charters. The facility is subsidized by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the cost of operation is shared in the ratio 75:25 between MHA and states. Requirement of HAA in mountainous regions should be a no-brainer but no such dedicated service exists and the weekly helicopter shuttle is diverted on ‘as required’ basis without any ambulance equipment onboard.

An AS350 B3 helicopter landing at a mountain helipad

Such services depend to a high degree on weather that is treacherously fickle, leading to frequent accidents or disruptions in service. This is another segment waiting for ‘disruptors’ who can provide safe & assured services.

Air Defence Zones and Security Clearances

Security and AD clearance is another impediment for helicopters seeking to undertake rooftop / helipad operations in the vicinity of military bases in crowded cities like Mumbai. While genuine security concerns can be understood, it has become routine for authorities to block any new helipads in their neighborhood.

Air defence clearance from Military Liaison Units is required for each and every flight in India. Activation of danger / restricted areas that engulf a huge chunk of airspace for military exercises disrupts helicopter operations without prior notice. The oil rig worker or resident of a remote area in the hills depends on that helicopter to get to work or home. How would you feel watching scheduled airline services continue unabated while your NSOP charter is cancelled because VAD24 is active and nobody knew it was coming? Who is tracking the wanton inefficiency such impediments bring to helicopter operations?

Airborne Policing…err, what’s that?

A small ALE questionnaire sent to Commissioners of Police of three Indian states (Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore) and myriad other police officials at the mid / senior levels went unanswered or consigned to e-dust. Reasons are not hard to figure. You could say it is ‘Greek and lathi’ for the police or political masters who lord over them.

Police vans such as these often double up as emergency vehicles in India

For the longest time, Indian police forces have maintained law & order with ‘lathi’ (baton) and .303 rifles of yore. It is an over-burdened force with 24% vacancies across states where crime per lakh population has increased 28% in one decade from 2005-2015. The Bureau of Police Research and Development has noted a 30.5% deficiency in stock of required vehicles with the state forces.

It took the vicious 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai to expose their vulnerability. Brave but hapless police officials fell like ninepins to terrorists’ automatic fire. Overnight, the Indian Air Force was requisitioned for a Mi-171V to slither down commandos over Nariman House in South Mumbai. The Indian military is ever ready to divert resources and helicopters in aid of civil power – a secondary duty that has eclipsed primary responsibilities at times. But is this our recipe for the future as well?

Consider this. Thirty years ago, there was no formalized internal security structure in a small country like Oman. Today, the Royal Oman Police has over ten AW139 helicopters and we could learn a thing or two from them.

Picture Courtesy: Oman Police website

The Maryland State Police of US has an ‘Aviation Command’ and has been serving the state from ‘above’ since 1954. To date, they have reportedly transported over 1,50,000 patients and undertaken the full spectrum of public safety helicopter operations. One of the testimonials (Matt Garbow) on their FB page says it all “The sound of that incoming helicopter is a sigh of relief when you are fighting the clock. They can turn a 40 minute transport into a five minute flight”.

Why in India should this be an exclusive privilege of the rich & famous?

Spate of Accidents

Another nail in the coffin for helicopters has been their poor safety track record. During a single decade (2005-2015), the industry saw 37 major accidents in India. A whopping 67% of these were attributed to pilot judgment errors, including loss of control (LOC) and loss of visual reference. State-run Pawan Hans Limited (PHL) has the dubious distinction of leading from the front here. Such accidents have only pushed the regulatory envelope thereby reducing discretion and latitude of individual operators.

In a way, the helicopter industry as a whole pays for every helicopter that crashes.

An alternate hypothesis is also in order. For all the entry-barriers that have been put up by the regulator, operators and clients regarding pilot qualifications, training and experience for civil operations such as offshore, hill flying, AMT etc, recent statistics reveal almost all CFIT or LOC accidents took place with crew who were top-of-the-game, experience-wise. Perhaps there is a need to also focus on what aids or options were actually available to the crew.

With no EGPWS, HTAWS, ADS-B, PBN or surveillance, crew are left to iPads ‘fulfilled by Amazon’ and AirNavPro downloaded from the App Store to deal with mountainous terrain and treacherous weather, continuing VFR fight into IMC, not because they had a choice. A European Helicopter Safety Team study identified EGPWS as one of seven key technologies that can prevent helicopter accidents. Almost all light singles in India today, including those that operate in the mountains, fly without such equipment; neither are they mandated even after numerous ‘inadvertent VFR into IMC’ accidents.

Disaster Relief

Flash floods ravaged the hilly state of Uttarakhand in northern India in 2013. The state administration was caught napping and ill-equipped to meet the scale of disaster where swelling rivers and landslides swept away roads and bridges in mountainous terrain leaving thousands dead or stranded. The IAF and Indian Army undertook one of the largest helicopter rescue operations in history (Operation Rahat), pressing into service 45 helicopters and rescuing over 20,000 stranded people. Even after the tragic crash of one of their Mi-17V5 rescue helicopter and loss of 20 lives, the unsung heroes continued undaunted.

Once the operation wound up and sunshine returned, it was status quo as usual. No special force has been raised, not even a bare minimum helicopter-based response plan put in place by the government and it will be the Indian Armed Forces once again, should another tragedy befall us. One hoped this incident would draw some attention to the importance of helicopters for civil defence and disaster management. But when you have the mighty armed forces to fall back on, why move government machinery to procure and maintain helicopters?

It’s not a story of plenty on that side either. The Indian military is already running woefully short of helicopters with case after case falling through the cracks.

Voices Drowned in the Din

Air Vice Marshal K Sridharan (Retd), President of Rotary Wing Society of India (RWSI) has been a staunch votary of the rotary since 1998 when he founded the only society of this kind in India. His untiring efforts have managed to cobble together a front that has some voice in the corridors of power. But after hundreds of presentations to government agencies and ministers, he admits it’s a steep uphill task trying to convince the state to invest or part-fund helicopter projects like AMT or ALE. Dedicated ALE, for that matter, is not even on the horizon. As on date, India does not even have the regulatory framework in terms of a Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) on the subject, he contends. His close associate and governing council member from the medical fraternity, Dr Sairamanan has worked with the London Air Ambulance and pioneered portable AMT kits for helicopters in India since 2007. The not-for-profit HEMS Foundation that he co-founded with RWSI’s support failed to get any traction and stands isolated today.

Helicopter operators themselves are a divided lot, busy under-cutting each other, with hardly any consensus on how to improve their lot. After the sun sets, potent helicopters like the AW139 & Bell 429 return to their hangars in India. Change here is incremental; not quite what the community needs to survive amidst numerous challenges.

While ALE Association in the US expands its ambit to include the entire gamut of public safety aviation to become Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA), lawmakers and stakeholders in India lament the state of affairs in sponsored seminars before an indifferent audience. Hitting the ‘What’s New‘ button on the RWSI website leads you to a circular on the forthcoming Governing Council elections, while AHS Forum 74 gets ready to explore the future of vertical lift.

Stalwarts like AVM Sridharan had a spring in their step and passion in their hearts 20 years ago. At 77, his energy is ebbing. Maybe he has come to terms with the fact that in 21st Century India, to fly is human; to hover, supine.

Challenges Galore, but Nobody Said it was Easy

Sorry, but I had to make you feel the downwash.

Bleak as it sounds, there is still gold at the bottom of the pyramid. Ahmed who rushed his ailing, pregnant wife to Mumbai in a rickety ambulance would have forked out thousands of rupees for that unsafe journey that finally ended in his wife and unborn child’s demise. With a little help from the state, the regulator, and corporates who are willing to adopt small villages under CSR for the purpose of such service, AMT, HAA and HEMS can be brought within reach of the average Indian.

If the regulatory stranglehold is released, many innovators will come forward with other business models. How about extending the RCS & UDAN concessions for helicopters across the country?

Nobody thought Uber would come and crash the urban transportation market. But they did. Nobody believed every Indian could fly. But Capt. Gopinath and Air Deccan changed all of that, government machinery moved in tandem and now our PM says ‘anybody in hawai chappal (flip-flops) can fly hawai jahaz’ (airplanes).

What’s the next disrupting idea that vertical lift has to offer in India?

There is simply no point trying to compete in areas where fixed wing operators are fully established. The trick lies in maintaining vertical lift’s exclusivity. Differentiate or perish.

Enough Said

I stepped out onto the street outside my Mumbai home. An ambulance wailed in the unyielding traffic. I looked up between tall buildings at the sky dotted with small puffs of cumulus. A bunch of electric wires, telephone cables and random cell towers criss-crossed the narrow spaces between buildings. Here, the sky belongs to everybody and nobody at the same time. Anybody can string a wire, weave a cable or pierce the sky with concrete. But when the time comes, there’s nowhere to land.

Maybe we bequeathed the beautiful concept called ‘vertical lift’ to a glorified rubber stamp too soon.

Elections are coming. Politicians of all hues will clamour for helicopters. Hundreds of helipads will be created, used and then thrown into disuse like election promises.

For a helicopter professional from India, this irony is hard to miss.

(An edited version of this article was carried by Rotor &Wing International on 01 Jul 18. Read it here)

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views expressed in this article are personal. Feedback is welcome.

7 thoughts on “The Untapped Potential of Helicopters in India

  1. Outstanding as usual KP!! Hope the entrepreneurial amongst us are reading. Not to forget the babus. Some gems in ur article – to hover supine, indeed

  2. As always,a well researched and thoroughly insightful article.Hopefully,someone reads it and takes note.Well done Kips,keep em coming!

  3. Really full of insights … Definitely lots of efforts put in to gather varied kind of informations … Applauding … Though We have definitely a long way to go … Nevertheless d journey should not stop.

  4. Helicopters are most under utilised in our country due to sheer shortage of numbers and off course the cost. The safety perception of general public is not very favourable may be because of poor track record of pawan hans. In India helicopter ride has been synonymous to ride in pawan hans for long. Yes time for Air Deccan type initiative has come in helo services also. KPS very well articulated as always. Cheers

  5. As suggested by some through this channel / email / pm, I had sent this post to Suresh Prabhu, Union Minister for Civil Aviation with a kind request to read and acknowledge. Even after few reminders, not even a thumbs up. He is widely known as a workaholic with tremendous zeal for change. But apparently his LinkedIn account is managed by either bots or social media managers who can’t differentiate wheat from chaff. I had also written to luminaries from the Indian Police Service like Kiran Bedi seeking feedback about helicopters and ALE in India. Again, all I received is one-sided propagandist newsfeed from their LinkedIn, not even remotely connected to the subject. I have unplugged from such connections on this channel. I am not here to enjoy their pop culture.
    Meanwhile, I have received feedback from across the world on many of my posts, including law-abiding citizens, aviation enthusiasts and professionals who wish for change. Even senators have sent their ‘thanks’ or when due. @Jeff Bezos & staff intervened & closed an @Amazon delivery issue we recently had within 24h. That’s the kind of customer-oriented approach I seek for my helicopter industry, nothing less. And I never give up.
    Thanks for your support. Kaypius.

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