India: Understanding our Constitution a little bit better

In less than a week, we celebrate our Republic Day.

But what exactly is a republic? How is it different from a democracy – which begs the question, what is a democracy?

One of the definitions of democracy, given by Google, is this: “control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.”.

Or, as children in India have been saying for years at around 5.30 in the evening, “majority wins” (Extra points for reading this in that wonderfully evocative sing-song cadence.) But hey, there’s so much more to it than that!

So what is a republic? Once again, Google to the rescue: “a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.”

So when we celebrate Republic Day, we’re really celebrating the fact that we’re not ruled by a monarch anymore, but rather by ourselves. Except that we elect some people to do the job for us.

So when we appoint somebody, what powers do we give them? What powers do we not give them? Do we give them the power to change the powers that we give them – if you see what I mean?

That is where the constitution comes in. Again, our old pal Google: “a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed.”

The Constitution, sets the maryadas of the government in power. This you can and should do, this, uh, not so much. That, not at all. The Constitution does so much more than that, but that is certainly one of its main purposes.

Which begs the question: who came up with the idea of constitutions? Who, in India’s specific case, was appointed to write India’s Constitution? On what basis? What were their ideas and motivating principles? And that is the direction in which today’s post will go.

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be anywhere near an expert on this topic. This is on the basis of stuff I have been reading in order to teach myself. If you have links to share that will broaden my understanding of this topic, please do share.

Many thanks to Murali Neelakantan for providing a ton of helpful suggestions!

  1. “To understand the first conceptualisation, that of constitution-as-function, we should clarify what scholars view to be the traditional purposes of constitutions. A central idea here is the limitation of government power. Constitutions generate a set of inviolable principles and more specific provisions to which future law and government activity more generally must conform. This function, commonly termed constitutionalism, is vital to the functioning of democracy. Without a commitment to higher law, the state can operate for the short-term benefit of those in power or the current majority. Those who find themselves out of power may find that they are virtually unprotected, which in turn may make them more likely to resort to extra-constitutional means of securing power. By limiting the scope of government and precommitting politicians to respect certain limits, constitutions make government possible.”
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    That’s the whole maryada angle we were talking about earlier. That is from the UCL website, and the website is worth a detailed look.
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  2. So if the idea of the Constitution is to, in this case, set up the framework for the operation of the government, that makes it pretty darn important. Who did we give the job to, and how?
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    “”India was still under British rule when the Constituent Assembly was established following negotiations between Indian leaders and members of the 1946 Cabinet Mission to India from the United Kingdom. Provincial assembly elections were held in mid 1946. Constituent Assembly members were elected indirectly by members of the newly elected provincial assemblies, and initially included representatives for those provinces that formed part of Pakistan (some of which are now in Bangladesh). The Constituent Assembly had 299 representatives, including fifteen women.”
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    Note that we didn’t really give the job to anybody. There were provincial assembly elections, and the Constituent Assembly members were elected indirectly by members of these provincial assemblies. But that may be a good thing! As Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah note in their recent book, In The Service Of The Republic: “The Constitution of India my not have won a referendum either in 1950 or today.” (Emphasis added).
    I really wish we had the time to explore this question in more detail: who frames the rules by which we agree to live as a country, and on what basis. But I promise to get to it in later posts. For the moment, we move on.
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  3. “(1) This Constituent Assembly declares its firm and solemn resolve to proclaim India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and to draw up for her future governance a Constitution;(2) WHEREIN the territories that now comprise British India, the territories that now form the Indian States, and such other parts of India as are outside British India and the States as well as such other territories as are willing to be constituted into the Independent Sovereign India, shall be a Union of them all; and

    (3) WHEREIN the said territories, whether with their present boundaries or with such others as may be determined by the Constituent Assembly and thereafter according to the Law of the Constitution, shall possess and retain the status of autonomous Units, together with residuary powers, and exercise all powers and functions of government and administration, save and except such powers and functions as are vested in or assigned to the Union, or as are inherent or implied in the Union or resulting therefrom; and

    (4) WHEREIN all power and authority of the Sovereign Independent India, its constituent parts and organs of government, are derived from the people; and

    (5) WHEREIN shall be guaranteed and secured to all the people of India justice, social, economic and political; equality of status, of opportunity, and before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality; and

    (6) WHEREIN adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes; and

    (7) WHEREBY shall be maintained the integrity of the territory of the Republic and its sovereign rights on land, sea, and air according to Justice and the law of civilised nations, and

    (8) this ancient land attains its rightful and honoured place in the world and make its full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind.”
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    This is the famous Objectives Resolution, put forth by Jawaharlal Nehru on the 13th of December, 1946, in one of the first few (the very first?) meetings of the Constituent Assembly. (5) and (6), to me, are the most crucial parts of the resolution. If the question is, what were the aims and aspirations of the members of the Constituent Assembly in terms of what they hoped the Constitution would achieve, this is the best answer I could find.
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  4. “It was here that the enduring distinction between “justiciable” and “non-justiciable” rights (Directive Principles) was first mooted, much to the consternation of K.T. Shah. It was in the Sub-Committee that Minoo Masani, Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur argued strongly for a right to inter-religious marriages and to a uniform civil code (with Ambedkar’s support), but were voted down. It was in the Advisory Committee that the right to privacy (secrecy of correspondence and prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures) was dropped from the draft bill of rights, as was the right to vote. Here you find Ambedkar’s eloquent arguments for the link between constitutional rights and the economic structure, and K.T. Shah’s radical proposals to make remuneration for housework a fundamental right. In short, endlessly fascinating stuff.”
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    All of that comes from Gautam Bhatia’s blog, written in collaboration with Vasudev Devadasan. The blog is worth subscribing to, and reading this post (part 1 of 3, no less) makes me want to burrow into this topic for a long time to come. Alas, accursed economics!
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  5. And finally, from a column written in 2018 by Gautam Bhatia, this excerpt – but do read the whole thing!
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    “In hearing and deciding these cases, the court has an opportunity to affirm the words of one of its greatest civil rights judges, Justice Vivian Bose, who recognised the deeply transformative character of the Constitution when he said: “Is not the sanctity of the individual recognised and emphasised again and again? Is not our Constitution in violent contrast to those of states where the state is everything and the individual but a slave or a serf to serve the will of those who for the time being wield almost absolute power?” How India Became Democratic helps us to understand that the answer to both those questions is an unambiguous “yes.””

 

It shames me to realize how little I know about India’s constitution, and the history of that constitution. We live by a set of rules whose origins, aims and framers are largely unknown to most of us. This post was my attempt to begin to change my own status quo, and I hope to dedicate at least one Monday a month to writing a post that helps me learn more about the Indian Constitution.

And on that aspirational note, a very happy Republic Day to you all!

India: Five Articles on Makar Sankranti

An attempt, for myself, to understand Makar Sankranti better. Reading up about this festival threw up for me additional information about how the it’s one of the few festivals in the Hindu calendar that is based on the solar calendar. In addition, I got to read about sesame (the word ‘tel’, a professor of mine tells me, may well have its etymological roots in ’til”) and about festivals in other parts of the world that celebrate similar themes.

The traditional Maharashtrian greeting around this time is ’tilghul ghya, god bola’ which translates as – although you lose the romance in the translation – “Eat sesame-jaggery, speak well (of each other)”.

One can hope!

  1. As usual, the Wikipedia article to begin with.
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    “Makara Sankranti or Maghi, is a festival day in the Hindu calendar, dedicated to the deity Surya (sun). It is observed each year in January. It marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days.”
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  2. Heard of Maslenitsa? I hadn’t!
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    “”People burn an effigy made of straw, wood, and cloth, representing Mother Winter, to mark the end of Maslenitsa in the village of Leninskoe, Kyrgyzstan, on March 10, 2019”
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  3. “A Hindu holy man, or naga sadhu, prays as he bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, on January 14, 2013. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The festival is expected to attract over 100 million people.”
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    A lovely photo essay in the Atlantic about the Kumbh Mela. As the article suggests, best seen on a computer, and that too full screen.
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  4. “Does drinking a live fish out of a jeweled goblet sound like your idea of a party? Better book a trip to Belgium, stat. That’s how locals in the town of Geraardsbergen—and nowhere else in the world, as far as we know—get down on the last Sunday in February. To kick things off, participants (dressed as medieval knights, naturally) march to the top of Oudenberg Hill, where they proceed to toss thousands of krakelingen, or ring-shaped bread rolls, down on the town below. Later on, they set a wooden barrel on fire and carry torches back to the city, symbolizing the seasonal return of light. But not before they take turns drinking a live fish from chalices filled with red wine—even though everyone knows white pairs best with seafood.”
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    A fascinating (to me, at any rate) set of links about how some European cultures celebrate the end of winter and the start of summer. Celebrate, it would seem, the ability to light up a fire – a global phenomenon.
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  5. “Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti, as the sun moves into the zodiac of Capricorn. Up north and in the west, it assumes the forms of laddoo, chikki, revdi and gajak. In Punjab, they also go by the name of til pinni. Til pitha and tilor laru are prepared in Assam for Bihu celebrated around the same time.”
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    How could I not include a link about food?

India: Links for 30th December, 2019

  1. On agriculture and Sharad Joshi.
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  2. On water and India.
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  3. Five articles on Kashmir.
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  4. Five on Goa
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  5. Five on India’s middle class.

India: Links for 23rd December, 2019

  1. “When it comes to data centre storage though, India lags behind not just the developed world but even Asia-Pacific. With roughly 40 million less Internet users, Europe has more than 12 times its capacity to store data — 8,600 MW, compared to India’s 700 MW. And while India comprises 25% of Asia-Pacific’s Internet users, in 2017, it accounted for only 8.6% of its data centre growth, as per a 2018 research of the Data Center Advisory Group.”
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    A nice article from the Livemint about how this is set to change.
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  2. A short write-up from the Business Standard on reforms to the GST. The specifics do not matter (to me, that is) as the fact that this article needed to be written at all.
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  3. “The remedial measures have to be a combination of factors: capital infusion, capacity building on the supply side to resolve the unproductive assets, incentives for new entrants and tweaks in the regulatory framework. We need to wipe the slate clean and look ahead. The need of the hour is also to take some hard decisions impacting the current stakeholders. Remember, this situation is akin to the housing-led credit crisis in the US, where a turnaround was led by foreclosed properties and those under development.”
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    On revitalizing the real estate sector in our country. It is going to be a long, hard drive, but one that needs to be undertaken as soon as possible. This is necessary reading for anybody who would like to understand India’s economy today!
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  4. Niranjan Rajadhakshya, about nine months ago, on the need (“maybe?” he said then) for Operation Twist.
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    “One option right now is to borrow a trick from the US Federal Reserve—Operation Twist, named after the dancing style that was all the rage in the years after World War II. There have been two famous instances when the US central bank “twisted” a steep yield curve through clever money market operations, first in 1961 and then in 2011. In each case, the Fed changed the relative amounts of short-term and long-term securities in the market. How? It sold the short-term treasuries it had and used the proceeds to buy long-term securities. The result was that short-term interest rates went up while long-term interest rates came down. The yield curve flattened.”
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  5. And we went ahead and did it. However
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    “Yet it is far from clear that the RBI’s goal will be achieved. Certainly, there might be some flattening of the yield curve. But it is not clear that the amounts being discussed are sufficient. The response of the market for short-term bonds is also being questioned. The sale of the shorter-tenor bonds might well blow up yields in that segment, according to some market participants; on the other hand, liquidity at that end is so ample that there might be an effective cap on yields. The essential problem in the Indian bond market is that the country has, in spite of an apparently manageable debt-to-GDP ratio, entered a state of effective fiscal dominance. “

India: Links for 16th December, 2019

  1. “Farmers cultivating perishable crops suffer more in times like these. The harvest is destroyed quickly due to unseasonal rains, and what survives has to be sold off without any delay. like fenugreek, that cost Rs 8, Rs 7 and Rs 13 respectively at Nashik market cost about Rs 30, Rs 15 and Rs 30 respectively at the typical vendor’s stall in Matunga. Cabbage goes up to Rs 70 per kilo from Rs 8 per kilo in a span of 300 km. Eggplant, following a similar trajectory, is pegged at Rs 80 per kilo in Mumbai, while even at Vashi, it is sold at Rs 15 per kilo.”
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    I wish it had been written (and edited) better, but that being said, it is still an interesting, informative read about the supply chain in agriculture.
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  2. “if the Assembly had been elected on the basis of universal suffrage it would not necessarily have “possess[ed] greater wisdom…”. Indeed, “It might easily have been worse…I am quite frank enough to say that this House, such as it is, has probably a greater modicum and quantum of knowledge and information than the future Parliament is likely to have.” Despite being an ardent backer of universal franchise and (limited) reservations, Ambedkar expressed unease throughout the life of the Constituent Assembly about what would happen to the quality of the country’s democratic institutions once all Indians were allowed to participate.”
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    This might be behind a paywall, and if so, my apologies. But even the excerpt above is worth spending some time over. Dr. Ambedkar on the Constitution of India. That is from an essay in the Caravan magazine.
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  3. I find myself unable to excerpt form this article, I am not quite sure why – but the entire thing is worth a read, particularly if you are not familiar with the politics of CAB in the North-East.
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  4. “Much of the decline in the overall LFPR is because of a steep fall in the female LFPR, from 43 per cent in 2004-05 to a pathetic 23 per cent in 2017-18. This compares poorly with female LFPRs (in 2018) of 61 per cent in China, 52 per cent in Indonesia and 36 per cent in Bangladesh. Nor can this precipitous decline in female LFPR be explained away by higher rates of female enrolment in education, since the 20 percentage point drop in LFPR is observed among both the 30+ age group (down from 46 per cent to 27 per cent) and female youth (down from 37 per cent to a heartbreakingly low 16 per cent). The current and future implications for overall female economic and social empowerment are deeply saddening.”
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    Two articles by Shankar Acharya in the Business Standard next. One on the employment crisis in India
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  5. “The chart shows that between 2011 and 2018, India’s goods exports increased by only 8 per cent. In sharp contrast, Vietnam’s exports grew by 154 per cent, Cambodia’s by 114 per cent, Myanmar’s by 82 per cent, Bangladesh’s by 61 per cent, the Philippines’ by 40 per cent, and China’s by 31 per cent. Rapid export growth is all about increasing market share. Between 2011 and 2018, our share of world exports stagnated at 1.7 per cent, while Vietnam’s share more than doubled, Myanmar’s increased by 80 per cent, Bangladesh’s by more than 50 per cent, the Philippines’ by 27 per cent, and even giant China’s by over 20 per cent despite trade wars. China’s share of world exports increased by 2.4 percentage points over the seven years, which is 60 per cent more than India’s total share in 2018!”
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    And the second, in which he debunks the notion that the slowdown in India is because of the slowdown in global trade.

Tech: Links for 10th December, 2019

  1. “To be clear, both roles can be beneficial — platforms make the relationship between users and 3rd-parties possible, and Aggregators helps users find 3rd-parties in the first place — and both roles can also be abused.”
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    The always excellent Ben Thompson on regulating monopolies online, drawing a distinction between platforms and aggregators. His articles, as I have mentioned before, are always a delight to read, and this one in particular is a great collection of links to articles he has written before. Plus, this article is inspiration, if you will, for the links that follow.
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  2. “Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “network neutrality” in a 2003 paper about online discrimination. At the time, some broadband providers, including Comcast, banned home internet users from accessing virtual private networks (VPNs), while others, like AT&T, banned users from using Wi-Fi routers. Wu worried that broadband providers’ tendency to restrict new technologies would hurt innovation in the long term, and called for anti-discrimination rules.”
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    An excellent explainer from Wired about Net Neutrality.
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  3. “For years, I winced at how Big Tech approached regulatory matters. When they wade into policy matters, they fail to see the bigger picture — and the younger the company, the worse they are at this. The hole that Facebook has dug for itself is entirely because its leadership seemed to believe that if they stayed within the letter of the current law they wouldn’t be regulated. This is a completely naive and ahistorical view. And this view has prevented Facebook from innovating in their own policy space. Without that policy innovation, we are left with essentially nonsensical suggestions to break up Facebook — which wouldn’t actually solve any of the issues anyone has with Facebook.”
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    If you’re looking to do research in this field, you can’t not read Joshua Gans. This is just one of many excellently argued articles. Do read the whole thing!
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  4. The internet activist Nikhil Pahwa lists out his expectations about the future of internet regulation in India. Agree or disagree (as usual, I fall in the middle), it is worth reading.
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  5. “More generally, however, the bigger Google gets the more countries it has a physical presence in (servers, sales staff and support etc.) and thus the more leverage individual countries, especially large countries, will have to degrade the services that Google offers not just within-country but to the world.”
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    Alex Tabarrok gives a fun example and a chilling analysis in the same short blog post.

India: Links for 9th December, 2019

Five rather eclectic links from a variety of issues pertaining to India. Also, my apologies about the delay in posting today! I’m traveling a fair bit, and there may be some delay in posts this week.

  1. Surjit Bhalla and Karan Bhasin present the other side of the story when it comes to the release (or lack of it) of the NSO consumption survey.
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  2. The Scroll sheds light on a little known issue today: austerity in marriages in India in the years gone past – enforced by the government!
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  3. Anupam Mannur and Pranay Kotasthane make the important, but not well known point that Bangalore needs more firms (and more people!) not less.
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  4. Via Mostly Economics, a lovely write-up about the fish traders of Madras.
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  5. 18000 birds died in Rajasthan recently. Here’s why.

India: Links for 2nd December, 2019

What else?

  1. “The non-government part tends to form 87-92% of the economy. In the July-September period, it formed nearly 87% of the economy. If 87% of the economy is growing at 3.05%, the situation is much worse than it seems.”
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    Vivek Kaul about the GDP data is worse than it looks.
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  2. “At its core, Indian industry is cooling rapidly, with industries like coal, steel, cement and electricity having contracted in October. Eight core infrastructure industries have not grown in the first seven months of this year. Manufacturing, led by the automobile industry, has contracted, and mining stopped growing in the second quarter. Energy utilities and construction saw their growth rates almost halving from the same quarter a year ago. Another three months of declines will officially qualify as a manufacturing recession.”
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    The R-word is being heard, louder and louder.
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  3. “The good news is that GDP growth in the next quarter or the fourth quarter could well be a wee bit higher. The pop thesis is that given the lower base of the previous year, growth could be statistically higher—a bit like standing next to Leonardo DiCaprio, who is six feet tall, and then next to Tom Cruise, who is 5 feet 7. The bad news is that the slowdown is not going away anytime soon. ”
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    Shankkar Aiyyar, in top form.
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  4. ““Besides monetary easing by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the government needs to simplify the goods and services tax (GST) and introduce a new direct tax code to clear the tax jungle created by our ancient income-tax law and rules,” he says.”
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    The “he” in this case being Arvind Virmani.
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  5. This may be behind a paywall for you, in which case, my apologies. But the final link in this set is from TN Ninan over at Business Standard.

India: Links for 18th November, 2019

  1. ““In the end it was this access to unlimited reserves of credit, partly through stable flows of land revenues, and partly through collaboration of Indian moneylenders and financiers, that in this period finally gave the Company its edge over their Indian rivals. It was no longer superior European military technology, nor powers of administration that made the difference. It was the ability to mobilize and transfer massive financial resources that enabled the Company to put the largest and best-trained army in the eastern world into the field””
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    An excerpt that itself was excerpted, but too delicious to resist – Alex Tabarrok writes an excellent review of William Dalrymple’s latest book on the East India Company.
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  2. “The problem is that, rather than examining independent indicators of economic activity, the Bretton Woods’ forecasts appear to be based primarily on (a) extrapolation of the official growth figures, and (b) some subjective adjustment based on staff’s assessment of policy changes.”
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    CGDEV on reporting of India’s growth numbers.
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  3. “Is all this working? Economists have talked about the possibility of green shoots of recovery in the second half of this financial year. However, looking at the data for July to September 2019, for now the slowdown is well and truly in place.”
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    Vivek Kaul isn’t impressed with the state of the Indian economy.
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  4. And perhaps with good reason: Somesh Jha on the fall(!) in rural demand.
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    “Consumer spending fell for the first time in more than four decades in 2017-18, primarily driven by slackening rural demand, according to the latest consumption expenditure survey by the National Statistical Office (NSO).”
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  5. Slate Star Codex on 1991, and the difficulty of using statistics. Econ nerds only!
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    “…”we need to study and raise awareness of the history of democratic, comparatively “nice” countries that did nothing worse than overregulate business a bit – and investigate whether even these best-case scenarios still doomed millions of people to live in poverty. My (biased) guess is that careful study will show this to be true.”

India: Links for 4th November, 2019

5 links about India’s middle class – whatever that means – for today.

  1. “The then managing editor of Fortune magazine, Marshall Loeb, was obsessed with the counterintuitive story of a fast-growing middle class in a country still synonymous with poverty. For my story, Loeb devised a headline that trumpeted, “India Opens for Business: The world’s largest middle class beckons foreign investors.” The article quoted NCAER data which estimated that the lower middle class, with annual household incomes of $700 to $1400, was responsible for 75% of unit sales of radios and soap and between a third and half of all shampoo and TV sets.”
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    Care to guess when this article – the one that is being spoken about here –  was penned? Read the rest of the article for a slightly pessimistic take on India’s middle class and its growth prospects.
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  2. I may have linked to this earlier, and apologies if I have, but a compendium of articles on India’s middle class is incomplete without linking to this magnificent – truly magnificent – article from Stanley Pignal in the Economist about India’s middle class.
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  3. Amitabh Kant et al provide for a rebuttal in the Livemint to the article I mentioned above. Given that it is almost two years since both articles were written, give or take, I leave it to you to judge which one has held up better over time.
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  4. Speaking of holding up over time, this is a McKinsey report from 2007 (yes, you read that right), about India’s big spenders – the soon to arrive middle class.
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    “The middle class currently numbers some 50 million people, but by 2025 will have expanded dramatically to 583 million people—some 41 percent of the population. These households will see their incomes balloon to 51.5 trillion rupees ($1.1 billion)—11 times the level of today and 58 percent of total Indian income.”
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  5. And finally, Vivek Kaul on a related note – the income-tax-paying Indian.
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    “In this regard, the Economic Survey of 2015-16 pointed out: “If the state’s role is predominantly redistribution, the middle class will seek—in professor Albert Hirschman’s famous terminology—to exit from the state. They will avoid or minimize paying taxes; they will cocoon themselves in gated communities; they will use diesel generators to obtain power; they will go to private hospitals and send their children to private education institutions.””