‘Famines perpetrated by policies that privilege the rich- Binayak Sen


Last updated on: October 9, 2012 12:39 IST, Rediff.com

Dr Binayak Sen at the Kovalam Literary Festival in Trivandrum

Many of us have a kind of apocalyptic view of famine, and there is no doubt that, once the stigmata of starvation are revealed, the images haunt you lifelong, says Dr Binayak Sen in his speech at the fifth annual K C John memorial lecture at Kovalam Literary Festival in Trivandrum.

Before we embark on our examination of the coming famine in India, we would do well to look at some recent history — specifically, at the Bengal famine of 1943. Three million people died in that famine. I heard stories about that famine from my mother, as did many middle class Bengalis of my age. There was no shortage of grain. This is one point I would like to emphasize, because everybody equates famine with a shortage of food, particularly a shortage of grain. There was no shortage of grain in Bengal in 1943, just as there is no shortage of grain in India today — indeed, there is so much excess grain that the government is hard put to store it so it does not rot.

Amartya Sen has famously analyzed the economics of that famine as “the failure of exchange entitlements”; in other words, those social arrangements, that enabled the people to access the food that they needed, broke down.

Recently a young historian, Madhushri Mukherji, has further extended this analysis. She has shown, on the basis of documentary evidence, in a book called ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ that a racist Winston Churchill made a special direct intervention to ensure that the rice from Bengal was sequestered to feed the British war effort, and then he similarly sequestered the Australian wheat that was supposed to take its place. Finally, in order to forestall a Japanese crossing of the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar — now in Japanese control — to Medinipur, he declared a scorched earth policy in Medinipur, destroyed all the grain, and, in order to prevent any riverine transport of grain, burnt all the boats and sank them in the river.

All this in 1943,  on the orders of Mr. Churchill. The needs of the army were deliberately privileged over the lives of three million of the Bengal peasantry. The point I am trying to make here is that famines, and, by extension, the other major human rights abuses that go on and on happening in our country and around the world, do not just happen on their own account. They are perpetrated as the result of policies that privilege the rich and powerful, and, by implication, harm the poor and disenfranchised.

While, by and large, this has always been the general order of affairs, for the last twenty years in India we have been functioning in a regime that specifically repudiates the constitutional injunctions for economic justice and equity embodied in the Directive Principles of State Policy, and valorises the argument that having the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is good for the economy, and the way to go forward. An extremely apposite example is provided by Mr. Sharad Pawar, who, at a Cabinet meeting on 14th December 2011, to consider the Food Security Bill, is reported to have said, “How can we feed every mouth in the country? If there is a famine, we will not be able to feed everybody.” This is tomfoolery of a piece with the nonsense about 32 rupees and 26 rupees that we have heard elsewhere.

There is one more general point about the definition of famine that I wish to make, before coming to specifics. Amrita Rangasami’s (EPW, October 1985) critique of Sen’s exchange entitlements approach needs to be taken into account. She says, “The sudden collapse into starvation that has been identified with the famine condition is only the final phase of famine, when the stigmata of starvation become visible, and the victims have collapsed. Famine is not, however, an event marked by the death of the victim. The basic failure in the understanding of famine is the inability to recognize the political, social, and economic determinants that mark the onset of the process. We need, therefore, to redefine famine and identify the various factors — political, social, psychological and economic — that operate to keep large classes in the population under continuous pressure.”

Many of us have a kind of apocalyptic view of famine, and there is no doubt that, once the stigmata of starvation are revealed, the images haunt you lifelong, as in Jainal Abedin’s paintings or the photographs that came out of Biafra. But these images are constructed out of a quotidian reality that would require special insight to perceive as signifying famine.

Reliable and adequately representative anthropometric surveys are difficult to perform and hence difficult to come by. Recently the Nandi Foundation had performed an assessment of children’s nutritional status which formed around 44 per cent of all under-five children victims of malnutrition. Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh said, while releasing the study report, that it was a “national shame”. Of that there is no doubt — but the shame is familiar. Similar data have been available from the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau – part of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) – for many years, and they are also corroborated by the findings of NFHS – III, carried out in 2005-2006.

Meanwhile, the NHFS – III tells us that around half of all deaths in the under-five age group were closely associated with their poor nutritional status. The CIA World Fact Book puts India’s IMR at 46 — 14th highest in the world, higher than that of every South Asian country except Bangladesh, which is 49. If the CIA says so, it must be true. To put the matter in a world context, every three seconds somewhere around the world, a child dies of causes related to avoidable malnutrition. In those three seconds, the world armaments industry spends $ 1,20,000 in order to keep the system responsible safely in place.

But so far we have been talking only about childhood malnutrition. Often when the talk turns to malnutrition, people assume that it is childhood malnutrition one is talking about. One reason is that sensitive and robust anthropometric measures for adult nutritional status have been in common use for less than twenty years. The Body Mass Index (BMI), which is now in common use, is fairly well standardised both at the individual and community level. It is not applicable to children but only to adults. The BMI is given by dividing the weight in kilograms by the square of the height in metres. The critical value of the BMI is 18.5. Values below 18.5 are indicative of chronic energy deficit i.e. hunger.

Values above 18.5 up to 22 are regarded as normal, and values above 22 (or 23) indicate increasing grades of overweight, or obesity. Pednekar, from Pune, has demonstrated through epidemiological studies that death rates increase as BMI descends below 18.5. If the death rate above 18.5 is taken as unity, then roughly, death rates from 18.5 to 17 are about 1.33, those from 17 to 16 are about 1.5, and BMI values below 16 are associated with a death rate that is double the “normal” death above 18.5. WHO recommendations are that any community that has more than 40% of its members with a BMI below 18.5 should be regarded as a community in famine.


What are the data regarding adult malnutrition in India today? The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) is part of the NIN, with headquarters in Hyderabad. The NNMB’s latest survey results for ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) areas, published in 2009, show that 40 per cent of men and 49 percent  of women have BMI below 18.5, and can be considered as suffering from chronic hunger; by implication, these areas should be considered famine affected. For the rural areas across the country, and by approximation for the country as a whole, the figures are 33 per cent for men and 36 per cent for women, the pooled figure being 35 per cent.

The same survey shows that 41.9 per cent of subjects from the scheduled tribes (ST) have BMI values below 18.5, and among scheduled castes, 38.4 per cent have values below 18.5. The Sachchar Committee on minorities shows that large proportions of the minority population have BMI values below 18.5. In other words, large sections of the population of India are suffering from chronic energy deficit, and either qualify for, or come perilously close to a state of famine. This famine is not circumscribed in time — so we have a chronic stable famine that exists over large sections of the Indian population.

The NNMB surveys also show significant anaemia in 55 per cent of the men and 70 per cent of the women, and a diet deficient (in comparison with recommended dietary allowances RDAs) in every nutrient that was measured including Vit. A, Vit. D, B vitamins, Vit. C, and proteins.

Nor is this all. Utsa Patnaik, a senior economist from JNU, has demonstrated declining cereal consumption over a 10 year period – from 1994 to 2004 – so not only do we have chronic energy deficit but the deficit is increasing. These findings are borne out by the findings of the National Sample Survey 2009-2010.

Even more chilling are the implications of the data regarding the epidemiology of Tuberculosis, the paradigmatic hunger associated opportunist infection. My colleagues working in the Jan Swasthya Sahyog in Bilaspur have established a series of about 1000 culture-confirmed cases of tuberculosis, in which there is almost a universal association between pulmonary tuberculosis and BMI below 18.5. Dr Rajeeb Dasgupta of JNU has shown, in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine, that over a period 10 years, the deaths from pulmonary tuberculosis have gone up 5 fold.

So this is the picture at this stage of famine before the stigmata become visible. It must be noted that this state of affairs can and does coexist with an abundance of stored food in the godowns of power. The people who are the victims are able to survive only because of their access to common property resources — water, land, forest, knowledge of and access to biodiversity.

But under the aegis of the doctrine of eminent domain, the Indian state stands guarantor to a process of expropriation in which all these resources are garnered into the hands of Indian and multinational finance capital. To this end, the state is prepared to deploy all its power — unarmed when possible, but armed when necessary. As Supreme Court said in Nandini Sundar: tax breaks for the rich and guns for the poor: this is the vision for the future.



R.I.P–Varsha Bhosle: Death of an unsung singer


On Monday morning singing legend Asha Bhosle who was in Singapore to attend a Marathi awards function, received a call in her hotel room from her driver in Mumbai informing her that her daughter Varsha had hurt herself. Ashaji immediately rang up a family friend requesting him to rush to the Bhosle-Mangeshkar residence Prabhu Kunj on Peddar Road.

This was not the first time that Varsha had hurt herself with the purpose of causing herself grievous injury. Sources close to the family say Varsha had attempted suicide twice before. This time Varsha meant business. A gun was used to do the needful in a foolproof way. Just where the gun came from, no one knows.

Says the family friend, “The entire apartment where the tragedy has occurred has been cordoned off. We are not allowed inside.Nor are we allowed to speak to the media.”

Family members and close friends sat in the adjacent apartment, which happens to be the most famous address on Peddar Road, that of Ashaji’s sister Lata Mangeshkar. According to family members Lataji is shattered by the tragedy that had befallen the family.

Says the family friend, “Lataji has taken it very badly. For something of this nature to happen in their family, is unimaginable. Lataji’s main concern is, how will Asha react when she lands from Singapore in Mumbai at around midnight on Monday-Tuesday night? For the two sisters, to go through this at the age of 84 and 80, is heart-wrenching, The cops are in and out of Prabhu Kunj questioning the entire family.”

Though Asha Bhosle lived with her son in another part of Mumbai , she was constantly in and out of Prabhu Kunj. Family-friends describe her as “a caring mother…a bit bewildered by her daughter’s moodiness but unfaltering in her patient handling of her daughter’s volatile moods.”

Says the family friend, “All of us kept our distance from Varsha. We were never sure how she would react to even the simplest of situations. Only Ashaji knew how to cope with Varsha’s moods.”

At 80, the legendary Asha Bhosle doesn’t deserve the unbearable pain and shock of losing her child. Life has dealt her another blow. Ashaji was in Singapore on the night before the tragedy, down with a viral fever. She travelled back to Mumbai in the morning with much more to worry about than a mere fever. But then as Ashaji confided a few days before this terrible tragedy,“Bahot saare dhakke khayen hai. Ab aadat si ho gayi hai (I’ve faced innumerable setbacks. I am used to them).”

A source close to the family says, “Varsha was very troubled in her later years. None of us knows what troubled her . We all tried to understand her problems.Was it just the burden of being the great Asha Bhosle’s daughter? But why punish her mother and the family for a circumstance created by fate? None of the second-generation Mangeshkar children have made it big as singers and musicians. But Varsha took it to heart.”

Like her illustrious mother Varsha Bhosle initially wanted to be a singer. As a child she sang professionally for Dev Anand‘s Loot Maar. The song composed by Rajesh Roshan had these optimistic words for Varsha to sing: Hans to hardam khushiyan ya gham….Alas, Varsha couldn’t follow this rule of living in her adult life. I had once asked Varsha why she gave up singing. She replied, “If you can’t take the heat of the chulha then it’s best not to enter the kitchen to cook.”

And she laughed heartily. That laughter became increasingly rare in later years. As she grew older Varsha became progressively troubled embittered and withdrawn. The divorce from her husband sportwriter and PR executive Hemant Kenkre, further estranged Barkha from those around her. “No one was allowed to get close to her. She drove everyone away,” says a source from the family.

The pressure of being an iconic celebrity’s daughter became unbearable after a point. Not that Varsha ever resented her mother’s legendary status. The daughter was forever proud of her mother and fiercely protective. In fact my first meeting with Ashaji was arranged by Varsha. Any hint of a negative write-up on Ashaji, and Varsha would be on the phone. It didn’t take long to pacify Varsha. She only needed someone to explain the rationale behind the injustices she saw being heaped on her and her mother. Give her an explanation, and Varsha would simmer down and get back to normal.

A bright assertive no-nonsense woman Varsha would proudly tell me the genesis of her name proudly. “It was a name given to me by the great composer Jaidev. When I was born he came to the hospital to visit my mother. It was raining. Jaidevji immediately said to my mother that my name should be Varsha. That’s how I got my name.”

To those close to the family, Varsha’s end wasn’t that unexpected. “She lived very close to the edge. We knew she could topple over any time,” says the source.

Join Protest in Solidarity With People’s Struggle Against Koodankulam Nuclear Plant @10thoct


10 October 2012 (12 noon onwards) Jantar Mantar


Thousands of people of Idinthakarai and other villages are waging a brave struggle against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, in the face of severe repression unleashed by the Central and State Governments.

At Fukushima in Japan, the entire world saw the horrors that a disaster in a nuclear power plant could wreak. The protestors at Koodankulam are seeking to avert a repeat of Fukushima in India. Post-Fukushima, several countries are rethinking their nuclear energy projects. But India is intent on bailing out the global nuclear industry, and is peddling lies to Indians and muzzling protests, in order to do so.

Manmohan Singh insists that the Koodankulam plant is safe.

  • ·         If indeed is the plant safe, why has Russia’s liability in case of a disaster been waived? If Russia is sure that its technology is safe and no disaster is possible, why does it want to avoid any responsibility in case of a disaster?!
  • ·         Even existing safety norms recommended by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board have been violated at Koodankulam.
  • ·         According to AERB’s own norms, there must be no population in the “exclusion zone” covering a 1.6km radius from the plant, and population in the 5km area around the plant must be under 20,000. At Koodankulam, a Tsunami Rehabilitation Colony stands less than 1km from the plant! And at least 40,000 people live within a 5km radius.

When the nuclear regulatory authorities and the Government so brazenly violate existing regulations and lie to the public, how can the protesting people be expected to have faith in their assurances of ‘safety’?

Moreover, why is the Government so intent on muzzling the democratic protest?

  • ·         FIRs have been slapped on some 55,000 protestors
  • ·         Charges of ‘sedition’ have been slapped on 8000 protestors
  • ·         Protestors including women, children, and old people have been severely beaten by police
  • ·         One man was killed in police firing and one died of shock when a Coast Guard plane flew low to terrorise the protestors
  • ·         Women have been subjected to sexually abusive language and sexual violence
  • ·         Leaders have been arrested; those who remain out of jail are virtual prisoners in the struggle villages
  • The entire area has been turned into a police camp, with visitors prevented from meeting local people. Recently, 3 visitors from Japan were deported, and the CPI(ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya was recently detained by police on the outskirts of Idinthakarai when he sought to make a solidarity visit.

Worst of all, the protestors are being branded as ‘foreign-funded’ and there is an attempt to whip up a communal campaign against them. Not only the Congress Government at the Centre and the AIADMK Government in Tamil Nadu – the BJP and Sangh Parivar too are conducting this communal campaign, claiming that ‘Christian missionaries’ are fuelling the ‘anti-national’ protest.

The question at Koodankulam is not just one of ‘allaying fears’ of people. Nor is it an academic question of the merits and demerits of nuclear power, or the differences between nuclear plants set up before and after the Indo-US Nuke Deal. The key question is one of democracy: will people’s democratic protests be heard in India, or will they be suppressed by brute force? Do Indian citizens have a right to the truth and facts, or will our Governments get away with lying to us? Above all, can there be any ‘national interest’ that jeopardizes the lives of millions of people, while clearly benefiting foreign nuclear companies?

The All India Left Co-ordination (AILC) has called for a fortnight of protests all over the country in solidarity with people’s struggle against Koodankulam Nuclear Plant. We invite you to join a protest at Jantar Mantar on October 10, 2012 (Time: 12 noon onwards).

–          Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation [CPI(ML)], Delhi State Committee.


Supreme Court refuses to ban training of Sri Lankan defence personnel


PTI | Oct 8, 2012, 12.12PM IST

Supreme Court refuses to ban training of Sri Lankan defence personnel
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court today refused to restrain the Centre from training Sri Lankan armed forces saying it is a policy matter of the government and it cannot interfere with it.

A bench headed by justice Aftab Alam refused to entertain a petition seeking its direction to Centre not to provide training facilities to Sri Lankan armed forces in the country.

The bench dismissed the petition terming it as “misconceived.”

Petition was filed by one N Raja Raman who had approached the apex court after there were some protests from a section of the public, including politicians, against training of Sri Lankan army in India.

In August, Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa has requested PM Manmohan Singh to instruct the defence ministry to immediately halt the training being given to the two Lankan defence personnel and send them back to Sri Lanka immediately.

Jayalalithaa had in July strongly opposed the training being given to nine Lankan defence personnel after which they were relocated to the Yelahanka air station at Bangalore.

She had insisted that they should not be trained anywhere in India, saying the desire of Tamil people was to see those (Sri Lankan defence forces) charged with war crimes (during the last leg of the ‘Eelam’ war) being punished.


Alleging assault by CRPF jawans, Jharkhand tribals stage protests


West Singhbhum (Jharkhand), October 8, 2012

Anumeha Yadav, The Hindu

 Officials say demands for removal of CRPF camps are politically motivated

Two separate incidents of alleged assault on village women by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans have triggered a spate of protests in the adjoining districts of West and East Singhbhum. In both areas, villagers and tribal leaders have renewed their demand for removal of the CRPF camps.

Senior CRPF and police officials said enquiries were on against the accused jawans, but termed the demands politically motivated.

On September 24, Sumati Gop (19) accused a jawan of Battalion 174 of attempting to assault her when she had gone to bathe in a stream in Salihatu village in Chaibasa in West Singhbhum. Two days later, a 15-year-old girl in Pathragoda village near Musabani in East Singhbhum accused three CRPF jawans of 193 Battalion of forcing her to strip, after which they took photographs and a video. In the First Information Report registered at the Musabani police station on September 26, the girl, a student of class IX, accused three jawans of accosting her when she stopped on her way back from her tuitions to talk to a friend Ajay Mardia from a nearby village. She says they beat Mardi and chased him away and then made her strip.

“Are these CRPF men here for our raksha [protection] or their bhaksha [to consume us]? I cannot rest till they put these soldiers in jail,” said the girl’s father.

Senior CRPF officers said the jawans of 193 Battalion intervened when they found the two adolescents in an intimate position.

“We do not want to join issue with the locals. We take very serious notice of any instance of indiscipline by our staff and we will enquire into these cases,” said Inspector General and CRPF spokesperson M.V. Rao. “The protests against the setting up of camps in these districts, however, go back prior to these incidents and some groups are utilising this for their own interests,” he said. The CRPF has initiated a Civic Action Programme (CAP) since 2010 in an attempt to “bridge the gap between the forces and the civilians.” Under this, it has been training tribal girls in batches of 30 to 60 in the “trades of security guard, house-keeping, motor driving, beautician, computer, nursing,” training 330 girls so far.


At Chaibasa in West Singhbhum, villagers and tribal leaders opposed the setting up of a CRPF camp at an abandoned airfield on the outskirts of the town since construction began in April. The town is 40 km from the Saranda forest, the focus of last year’s anti-Naxal police operations. “They cannot set up this camp without consulting the traditional Manki Munda tribal leaders,” said vice-president of the Adivasi Bhartiya Adivasi Mahasabha (ABAM) Mukesh Birua. On October 3, over 200 policemen kept watch as thousands of Ho tribals carrying sickles, axes, bows and arrows gathered in Gandhi Maidan in Chaibasa to protest against the assault on Sumati Gop, who belongs to an OBC community. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MLA from Chaibasa Deepak Birua was among the leaders who addressed the protest rally.

Over 100 km away in Musabani in East Singhbhum, the September 26 incident triggered a fierce protest. Santhal tribals from Pathargoda, Musabani, and 20 other villages surrounded a CRPF camp located in the town and set fire to a CRPF board. The CRPF resorted to a lathicharge and registered an FIR naming 18 villagers.

“Last year, a CRPF jawan entered a house in Harijan Basti and tried to assault a woman. We tied him to a tree and beat him. Now this,” said Kanhu Hemrom the pradhan of 70 Santhal families in Musabani. “They assault our women. They flash torchlight in our eyes and stop us on our way in and out of the village. We have lived here for years. Who are they to stop us?” said Gulai Tudu, his neighbour.

In both instances, the accused jawans have got bail from the Chief Judicial Magistrate in the cases registered at the local police station. The jawan accused in the Chaibasa incident has resumed duty. In both instances the jawans were charged under Section 354 of the IPC and have got bail. At Musabani, a senior officer from Battalion 193 spoke said on condition of anonymity that “after a preliminary enquiry, two of the three accused have been suspended.”

(Some names have been changed to protect identity)


Kasab’s lawyers donate fees to 26/11 victims’ kin


TNN Oct 4, 2012, 02.53AM IST
(Lawyers Raju Ramachandran…)

NEW DELHI: If Mumbai police personnel showed exemplary courage in fighting the 26/11 terrorists with outdated weapons and even lathis, lawyers Raju Ramachandran and Gaurav Agrawal displayed “high professional ethics” by donating Rs 14.5 lakh, due to them for defending the lone surviving Pakistani gunman Ajmal Kasab, to families of security personnel who died in the attacks.

When Kasab moved the apex court challenging his conviction and death penalty for 26/11, he had no one to defend him. The court appointed Ramachandran and Agrawal as amicus curiae to protect the principle of natural justice by making provision for Kasab’s defence.

Both the advocates, a bench of Justices Aftab Alam and C K Prasad noted, did their best in researching case law and preparing Kasab’s elaborate defence, which focused on his young age, his not being the mastermind of the carnage and his not being responsible for the murders at landmark hotels. The court rejected the arguments and upheld death penalty to Kasab.

On Wednesday, the bench appreciated the “high professional ethics” displayed by the two lawyers in moving an application seeking to donate their fees — Rs 11 lakh for Ramachandran and Rs 3.5 lakh for Agrawal — to the Supreme Court Legal Aid Services Authority. The bench decided to put the donation to a fitting use by asking the Maharashtra government to proportionately distribute the amount among families of 18 Mumbai policemen and securitymen who died in the attacks.


More militarism, less mass support: Naxalbari veterans


Mohua Chatterjee,
Times of India | Oct 8, 2012,
NEW DELHI: It may be a little known fact but 95-year-old Mujib-ur-Rahman narrated it with glee while going through his days with Charu Majumdar, Naxalbari and the present day state of the Maoist movement at the JNU Students’ Union hall room.
“Soumen Tagore had come, Jai Prakash Narayan had come… they wanted to join the Communist party. They asked what post they would get… they were looking for posts when we were all equals in the party… they went back. Tagore started his own radical organization and Jai Prakash Narayan started his Socialist Party,” Rahman said while recalling his association with the Communist Party that started following his release from Dhaka jail after the 1942 movement.
Heroes of Naxalbari and politburo members of the CPI (ML)-Janshakti party, Mujib-ur-Rahman, Khokan Majumdar, Khadan Mallik, Shatibala Munda and Suniti Vishwakarma were in JNU to address students, with just one message, “we should be united, only then can we fight the others.”
They call themselves the real communists—men and women who stood with their leader Charu Majumdar and were part of the armed struggle of peasants that started from Naxalbari village, outside Siliguri in north Bengal, in 1967.
Even today, in the sunset of their lives, they believe the movement has not failed but has suffered because of “internal fighting” and hence its splintered existence.
Khokan Majumdar, who lives and works out of Naxalbari even now at 82 years, suffered a cerebral stroke four years ago has developed a speech problem. He told TOI, “The biggest difference between the Maoist movement today and the one we started before independence is that CPI (M) stresses on militarism. Without the mass line, that is people’s movement to fulfill people’s demands across the country, the movement cannot succeed.”
Asked why their movement failed, the reply was prompt. “Chiner chairman amader chairman. Keno? (Chinese chairman is our chairman, why). That could never have worked,” said Khokan Majumdar, who was born Abdul Hamid and ran away from home in Naxalbari when 12 to escape the life of a bidi binder. He became a trade union leader in Kolkata.
The years of struggle and spending half their lives in jail have not dampened their spirit. “Those of us who had started… are almost over, old and dying now, today’s movement is internally divided… united front will help us consolidate,” said Majumdar with a smile on his wrinkled face.
They said the biggest hindrance for the organization to grow was “the emergence of a middle class that is hungry for power… it is a dangerous trait”. The other reason, both said, was the government’s development work, which is “satisfying the people for the time being”.



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