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Can Rights be ensured through activism? The role of civil society organisations and challenges faced ensuring the proper implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in India. Introduction Countless efforts and joining hands together of numbers of activists, academics and politicians made the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) 1 a vital piece of legislation with which to improve the condition of the rural workforce in terms of rights. It can be seen as an outcome of a long and complex process of intercession, advocacy and political lobbying (Ghosh 2006, p. 95). Activists from different parts of the country campaigned for guaranteed employment for the rural work force and effective members of the government played an important role in pushing the agenda forward against the resistance of other political actors (MacAuslan 2008, p.1). Finally, it came into force in 2005 with the hope that this will provide the rural labour force with the exercise of the right to work. The MGNREGA (the Act) not only has tremendous potential to ensure social security to the poor but also has greater potential to mobilise the community, ensuring transparency and accountability in the systems and structures (Aiyer and Samji 2006, p.320). In this context the role of the civil society organisation (CSO) is crucial. They have a greater responsibility and capability to mobilise the community to make this Act effective because the individuals, as well as the community, always organised themselves and showed their collectiveness under the umbrella of organisation due to their strength and effectiveness (Obiyan 2005, p.301).

MGNREGA is an Indian job guarantee scheme, enacted by legislation on August 25, 2005 introduced as National Rural

Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) but was renamed on 2 October 2009.

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In the past five and half years the Act has had both positive and negative experiences across the country. Most of the civil society organisations working with a rights based approach adopted the MGNREGA and focussed on effective implementation of the same through activism. In spite of the nationwide engagement of CSOs with the MGNREGA, some places experienced positive outcomes and some negative. This posed a question to all the development actors: What constitutes the potential activism to ensure the proper implementation of the Act and thus ensure the rights of the individual entitled to them? This article explores the power of activism and the role of CSOs to ensure the rights of people through activism. For substantiating the core argument regarding the role of activism in ensuring such rights, the paper examines the success story of MGNREGA in Rajasthan, emphasising the MKSS 2 intervention area as a sample and the nonintervention area as a control.

Section one of the article explains the conceptual understanding and the relationship of the civil society organisations and activism. Section two focuses upon MGNREGA as a significant tool for the civil society organisations in initiating mass participation and strengthening community activism by discussing the ground-breaking role of activist, Aruna Roy, and MKSS in Rajasthan for making MGNREGA a reality. Section Three discusses the analytical relationship between the role of CSO in activism and ensuring the rights of the marginalised with good practices, and also the difficulties faced by the CSOs in ensuring these rights. The last section comprises a

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan is a grassroots organization formed in 1990, working in rural Rajasthan. This union of peasants and workers, operating under the slogan Equality and Justice for All, has become one of Indias most potent social justice movements.

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concluding note with further recommendations for the civil society organisations to enhance their activism and make the Act a successful one.

Civil society organisation and activism In todays world where claims of social justice are increasing, the role of civil society organisations is increasing. The claims for social justice are based on two different principles. The first is redistributive and the second is recognition. Both the perspectives give a foundation for activism to the civil society organisations. The redistributive principle of social justice emphasises the just distribution of resources and materials whereas the second is based on political recognition. (Fraser 2008, p. 1). To establish the redistributive and recognition justice all the civil society organisations emphasise activism. Activism ensures the empowerment of people and their effective participation in the whole process. The two concepts of the civil society organisation and activism form the structure and function of a process where the CSO gives the structural foundation and the activism ensures the functional base. In order to understand civil society and activism and their role in ensuring the rights, it is necessary to define civil society organisation and activism. The question, What is a civil society organisation? does not come up with a single answer, which means it is a source for a diverse collection of different political aspirations (Fine 1997, p.7). Civil society is the sphere of public activity of private individuals who believe them to be endowed with rights and act as autonomous subjects (Kumar 2000, p. 2776). The concept of civil society has been considered as an effective mechanism by which to develop and sustain democracy (Zompetti 2006, p. 167). Thus the notion of rights and activism is crucial in the life of a civil society organisation. Individuals with a

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sense of rights are crucial actors because they voluntarily associate in a group to solve the problems for the mutual benefit within the community. Such association can be termed as civil society of liberalism (Kumar 2000, p. 2776). Tylor, in his work Modes of Civil Society, explains the civil society organisation from a variety of angles. Firstly, he emphasises the historical background of civil society thoughts from Hobbes authoritarian view of society. Secondly, he discusses Rousseau and Locke's anti-authoritarianism, known as L-view and Montesquieus Mview, which discusses civil society as a part of state policy and has the authority to influence the same. Furthermore, he brings Hegel's philosophy into the discussion, which bridges the two views. According to him, civil society is not at the outer sphere of political power; instead it infiltrates deeply into political power, and fragments and decentralises it (Chatterjee 1990, p. 122 -127). To strengthen his argument Taylor further distinguishes the sense of civil society into three segments. Firstly, it is a free association, not under the control of state power. Secondly, it is the space where society can organise itself, and initiate and control its actions through free associations and thirdly, the collaborative nature of the association can strongly influence the determination and legislation of state policy (Chatterjee 1990, p. 120 -121). Thus, from the above discussion it is clear that he views civil society as the amalgamation of society into political organisation and believes in the redistribution of power among different independent actors. The ambition of civil society is not to form a non-political domain but relatively split infinitive to form the ground for the fragmentation and diversity of power within the political system.

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Activism can be considered as identical to participation; the difference is that it is not just participation per se, but an active form of participation (Fiorito et al 2010, p. 266), which means that it believes in the effective participation of the members who have a cause to fight. Functionally it is apprehended by concrete actions organised for, and focussed upon, the particular goal. All the activists and members are conscious about the process and the goal (Roth 2010, p. 284). Thus, from the above definition, it can be said that in the process of activism the common mass who are aware of the problems and understand the issues, assemble and decide to campaign actively to make a difference in the environment and with the lives of people. In a general context activism denotes any kind of activities conducted individually or collectively, informally or institutionally, which aim to bring changes within peoples lives (Bayat 2002, p. 3). Furthermore, the author, in his article from `Dangerous Classes' to `Quiet Rebels, explains the various activities involved within the preview of activism. According to him, activism involves a whole range of activities including survival strategy and resistance to more sustained forms of collective action and social movement (Bayat 2000, p. 549 550). Now the question arises as to why civil society activism? What is the relationship between civil society organisation and activism? It is argued that activism is very much needed within, and by, the civil society organisation because of three main reasons. Firstly, it supports and enhances democracy within society. Secondly, if activism is less evident within the organisation it may weaken the democratic structures, which in turn creates a condition where sufficient pressure cannot be put on the system and structures. Thirdly, if activities are not frequent within the organisation, the community representative, alternative movements and networks will be subjected to violence (Linden 2008, p. 3).

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Thus, activism is an indispensable function of civil society. Civil society believes in peoples power. The emphasis is on community engagement that is to involve all the members interested in a better society, and to empower and sensitise them towards the issues, so that they can together address it for change. The nature of activism within the organisation may take different forms, including social activism, political activism and cultural activism. Political activism is mainly associated with identifying and addressing the different problems within the structures and systems. Activism sometimes initiates and carries out a long-term political process to target policy change (Linden 2008, p. 3). Policy change not only means to formulate a new policy but also to enhance the functionality of the policy. The typical example of this is the role of civil society in implementing the MGNREGA and effective use of Right to Information Act (RTI) in India. White (2007, p. 382-385) identified four important roles of civil society in terms of activism. Firstly, the civil society organisation can establish an equal power relationship between the state and the society in favour of the society members. Secondly, strong civil society has the potential to play a disciplinary role within the state, especially in terms of enforcing the policies, and improving the transparency and accountability of systems and structures. Thirdly, civil society plays a crucial role as an agent of transmission that connects the society and the state and establishes the relationship between the system and the citizen. It facilitates political communication between the two groups by creating an alternative principle of representation. Lastly, it states that the CSO can also play a productive role by redefining the rules and guidance of the political game along democratic lines.

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MGNREGA as a significant tool for the civil society organisation 2005 is considered to be a remarkable year in the history of social protection policies in India when, in August that year, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which has also Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (Negi 2010, p.2). According to government records it has provided employment to more than 50 million households across the country with the expenditure of 8 billion US dollars between April 2009-March 2010 (Vij 2011, p. 1). Under this Act, rural household members above 18 years of age are encouraged to demand 100 days of manual labour as a right, and entitlement of compensation if the government fails to fulfil these jobseeking demands (Banyan2010). This right-based approach to development under the MGNREGA emphasises empowerment of people, especially the most disadvantaged groups, and to hold the duty bearer accountable. The right paradigm enhances the people-centric approach in the Act in all the steps including planning, implementation and monitoring (Singh 2010, p. 2526). The second element of right paradigm is the demand-based approach to work, which has given power to the community to demand, instead of request, from the government. Although the right-based approach of the MGNREGA gives the space and right to the individual, the complex bureaucratic structure and system makes it more complicated and confused to the marginalised, which prevents them from exercising their rights and duties. In India, the government is frequently criticised for its inefficiency. The complex structure and system make it difficult for the common masses to access their rights and entitlements (Vij 2010, p. 6). Moreover, the corruption within the system further complicates the accessibility and control of the common masses over their

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rights. Sometimes, due to lack of awareness in spite of exploitation, the marginalised just remain silent over the issues instead of raising their voices against corruption and demanding their rights. This becomes their habit and the culture of silence becomes part of their life. To make their rights ensured and accessible this culture of silence needs to be broken and this needs community mobilisation and empowerment. MGNREGA is the perfect example, where the CSOs effectively engaged with the implementation process through activism; there the output is maximal.

Comparative analysis of the implementation status of MGNREGA in Rajasthan Various factors relate to the underlying reason for the different status of MGNREGA implementation between states and even within states. The presence of civil society organisation, strong political will, higher levels of awareness among communities and the prior experience and capacities of civil servants and officials with regard to implementing similar programmes (like drought relief schemes) are identified as some of the important factors responsible for a better take-off of the MGNREGA in states like Rajasthan (Reddy and Upendranad 2010, p.11) More recently, on July 2 and 3, 2007, we conducted a brief investigation of the MGNREGA in Jhalawar district. We visited three blocks (Bakani, Dag, and Sunel), verified job cards and muster rolls in half a dozen villages, and had detailed discussions with labourers, mates, sarpanchs, gram panchayat secretaries, engineers, programme officers and block development officers. In Bakani, we selected three muster rolls at random among those available at the block office and verified them with the labourers concerned. We interviewed about 20 labourers who had worked on these worksites. In each case, the muster roll details matched with the job card details and the labourers confirmed that the details were correct. Further, there was no evidence of fake names having been entered in the muster rolls. This reinforces the findings of earlier investigations in

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Dungarpur district, suggesting that fudging of muster rolls is rare in Rajasthan today. (Drze and Lal 2007). The above-mentioned story tells us how the MKSS activism engaged both the community and the government for better implementation of the MGNREGA. Menon (2008, p. 5-6) describes how the state of Rajasthan had been doing well, ahead of other states in terms of implementation of the schemes. Moreover, it is the only state which has been able to meet the core objectives of rural asset creation, microwatershed development, checking urban migration, etc. Rajasthan has been championed in the social audit process. To support his argument, Menon cites three reasons for the same. According to him, the first reason is that Rajasthan is the birth place of the peoples movement for the enactment of RTI and MGNREGA. The movement was initiated by MKSS and Aruna Roy and the people of Rajasthan actively engaged themselves to demand for the right to be enacted. Hence, when it was enacted, the people of the state actively began to engage in the process and proclaim their legitimate rights, which ultimately resulted in success. The second reason he mentions is the active involvement of MKSS and other civil society organisations, especially in the whole process of monitoring. The role of MKSS is remarkable in establishing the transparency and accountability of the whole process (Lakha 2011, p. 171) thirdly; the state has a history of successful implementation of drought relief programmes, free from corruption and leakage of public funds. Many studies conclude that the success of programmes is due to public monitoring and grass root level participation of the people. The other reason which made MGNREGA successful is bottom-up accountability, which was due to involvement of the civil society in empowering and disseminating information, thus motivating them to obtain their entitlements (Afridi 2008, p. 37 38).

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Public hearing is another factor which ensures transparency in the process of implementation. This strategy was adopted by MKSS extensively in the state. This proved to be successful because the process of collectively accusing the culprit was used. Here the community leaders collectively undertake the fact finding by meeting people and collecting secondary information. MKSS has a strong network with the people (Shankar 2010, p.22). During the year 20082009 Rajasthan was the state where the highest job demands were met. To date, around 637,309 households have got jobs under the MGNREGA with the expenditure of 6164.40 crore rupees (Ministry of Rural Development, 2010). This figure shows how effectively the Right to Work Act has been availed by the common masses. Although Rajasthan has illuminative case studies for the success of MGNREGA it did have some failures. Rajasthan is considered to be a favourable ground for conducting social audit but recent studies indicate that social audit has not been conducted vigorously and were a defect (Shankar, 2010, p. 22). Where the MKSS presence is less, the result is negligible. The writer was associated with a grass root level organisation in the district of Banswada and Ajmer and engagement with the same has helped to comprehend the above-mentioned fact. In those areas, MKSS involvement was not there hence the performance of MGNREGA was not satisfactory and people are deprived from their right to work. Ensuring Rights through Activism: The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) boldly proclaims that the foundation of freedom, justice and peace is the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family."(Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948)


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The core value of human rights is the relationship between the right holders and duty bearer. The state has the responsibility to create favourable conditions for the duty bearer and the right holders to ensure their rights within society. However, in society where the right holders are silent due to ignorance and corruption from the duty bearer, and the duty bearer and the system they operated are more complex and corrupt, there is a violation of rights in every sphere of their life. From MKSS experience it is clear that civil society has the potential to act as a missing link between the right holders and the duty bearer. It has a very crucial role because it deals with the oppressed and also with the oppressor. It adopts activism as a tool to mobilise the community and to put pressure on the system as well. Activism helps the civil society organisation to act at three different levels. At the grass roots level, it helps by empowering the marginalised thus enabling the community to speak out; at the organisational level by networking with the likeminded organisation thus increasing the strength of the advocacy process; and at the policy level, through lobby and advocacy, which provide an opportunity to negotiate and bargain. Community empowerment is the key and foremost strategy of activism because it brings all the community members into consideration and sparks the ethos perspectives of the struggle within them. According to Vij (2011, P. 7) the stages of empowerment include inclusion, information, influence and integration. Inclusion is the beginning of empowerment. It means bringing all the members in from the periphery who were not involved in the decision-making process at any level. Thus, by the process of inclusion, the marginalised are able to come to the centre of the decision-making process. This in turn helps them to organise themselves collectively. The inclusive nature of activism


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gives the opportunity to all members of the community, irrespective of their caste or class, to actively engage in the process. Inclusion sparks the fire of engagement. After inclusion, the process of activism provides them with the opportunity to access information. Information helps the members to be aware of the problems and the issues. Activism always focuses on the mass awareness campaign. This mass awareness campaign helps to disseminate the basic information to the community. In this whole process the community members are targeted, and mass awareness builds their capacity. Capacity development is considered to be a long-term, endogenous process of developing sustainable abilities on all levels: the individual, organizational, institutional and system level (Ulleberg 2009, p.17). Thus, throughout the process of activism the members build their capacity by the following formula: learning delearning - learning. MKSS used the mass awareness campaign on MGNREGA and RTI to generate a basic understanding about the rights among the people. This awareness campaign in turn sensitised the community towards the issues. The second step in the process of activism is building the capacity of the identified leaders. After building their capacity they lead the process. If we look at the whole activism process of MKSS, after awareness generation, capacity building of the leaders was accomplished. In turn, the leaders conducted a social analysis process to discover the problems in the process of implementing the MGNREGA. Through this process they collected the facts and figures needed because they have greater importance and impact in a right-based approach. This knowledge enhancement helps them to organise and mobilise themselves. According to Laverack and Wallerstein (2001, p. 179 -180) empowerment is a process of building capacity, competence, cohesiveness and social capital within the community. The individual, group and community have an opportunity to bring social and political change which in turn


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changes the situation of powerlessness and enables them to take control over their lives. The third step of empowerment is the influence of the collaboration process. Through the enhancement of social and political leadership, members tend to influence the other members of the community to join them for the cause and to try to break down the boundaries. Influencing others also helps in breaking their culture of silence. This becomes very effective because they motivate their own people by sharing their experience. Influence of the collaboration process leads to integration which creates an enabling environment for the actor to speak out and voice out against their dissent. Thus empowerment is the process of bringing people who are at the periphery to the centre of the decision-making process, emphasise access to the political structures, market and income and opportunities. So that they can effectively participate in the whole process of decision-making with greater strength and can also influence the decision-making process. (Rowlands 1995, p. 102). Organisational activism plays an important role in spreading the struggle to the other areas. For example, the activism for MGNREGA spread within and outside the state of Rajasthan effectively. This spreading of the movement helps the process to formulate issues at a higher level and to create pressure on the government. According to Grant (1995, p. 9) A pressure group is an organization which seeks as one of its functions to influence the formulation and implementation of public policy. The union of like-minded individuals and civil society from different places can create huge pressure to demand transparency and accountability in the process. This creates the space for the activist to play an important role in the implementation process and reduce corruption within the system. The best example is the social audit


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and jansunwai (public hearing) used in MGNREGA to ensure transparency and accountability. This process functions as a vigil on the duty bearer to ensure the effective implementation of the programme. In turn this helps the marginalised to enjoy their rights entitled to them as a citizen or as a special right. Through activism the activist is able to create a space within the system and structure and is also able to influence the policy formulation and decision-making process. Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of MKSS, through their continuous activism in the state of Rajasthan, were able to influence the formulation of the Act. Their continuous grassroots engagement through the activism provided them with the recognition at wider spaces within the CSOs and within the state. This recognition creates a space within the policy formulation, and decision-making helps the activist to advocate for the marginalised at a greater level and influence the same for the benefit of the people involved. After the right is enacted, the marginalised can take legal action if their rights are violated in any form. Before the MGNREGA the entire programme was dedicated to the public as a token by the government in which the public had no stake in ensuring its proper implementation because they were on the receiving end. Within MGNREGA, the public has a right and duty to monitor and ensure such proper implementation. Challenges of Activism The experience of the state of Rajasthan, and especially the role of MKSS in proper implementation of the MGNREGA, through creating awareness of ordinary citizens and ensuring their entitlement, are commendable and encouraging but at the same time there are several emerging challenges that need to be understood.


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Firstly, in the process of activism the leaders become the centre of power; whereas the community leaders and the individuals involved in the activism process become the object, for example, while narrating the success stories of MGNREGA in Rajasthan, all mentioned Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey. Although their contribution is remarkable, activism believes in equal participation thus all the leaders should share equal recognition. This is one of the biggest challenges, namely how to bring equal recognition in the process of activism. Secondly, it is true that if the process does not have the strength and imagination to determine the possibility of constructive results through special initiatives like MNERGA, there is a danger of expressing dissatisfaction in term of frustration, cynicism and violence, which ultimately affect the most vulnerable in the community negatively (Negi 2010, p.22).

Thirdly, the activists become the victims of violence. In many instances they are assaulted, abused and even killed, for example: "Our jeep had just arrived at Banskhedi village and all our members had not even got off the vehicle when one man came towards us and started shouting abuse, asking us to go back. He was carrying a lathi in his hand. He came towards me, snatched away my mobile phone and started beating me up. A little further, another team member was dragged for a distance on the road and badly wounded. When I rushed to help him, I got beaten up once more. A woman member was hit with a stone and was badly bruised; she is in need of stitches" recounted Parasram Banjara (MKSS) who was part of this team (Devendra and Dey 2008, p.1).

As activism is committed to stopping corruption and ensuring the entitlement of rights it threatens the legislative representative as many of them are corrupt. To prevent their corruption being brought into the limelight, they adopt violent methods to horrify the activist.


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The biggest challenge to activism is to sustain the spirit of activism. At the peak, all the members actively participate with full enthusiasm but at a later stage the eagerness wears off. Thus the challenge of CSO is to formulate the issues to continue the process of activism; if there is continuous activity within the process of activism then the spirits of the activists can be effectively sustained to bring positive changes and ensure transparency and accountability within the systems and structures.

Conclusion Access and control of resources are the rights of every citizen and ensuring these rights is the duty of the state. Where there is a lack of transparency and accountability, and accumulation of power, there is more corruption. More corruption leads to the violation of rights of the common masses. If the common masses are less sensitive and empowered there are more chances of violation of their rights. The above discussion identifies five major roles that the civil society can play in terms of activism to ensure the rights of the individual: (1) collecting, disseminating and analysing information; (2) providing input to agenda-setting and policy development processes; (3) performing operational functions; (4) assessing transparency through monitoring compliance with policy agreements; and (5) advocating for social justice. Effective implementation of the MGNREGA is an example of a successful outcome of community activism. Various studies narrate the fact that the positive outcome of MGNREGA in Rajasthan is due to high level public enthusiasm and awareness and the participation of the civil society organisation; also, the public vigilance in a monitoring mechanism and extensive use of legal instruments, like RTI (Menon and Venu 2008, p. 12)


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In the whole process of activism the role of the CSOs is crucial because it acts as an intermediary between the state and society, which strengthens the relationship between the individual citizens and the formal political systems. On one hand it encourages the community leaders to participate effectively in the process of ensuring transparency and accountability. If the common masses are organised and empowered, they can break their culture of silence and demand their rights through collective action. Civil society activism is a strong tool to perform this function. Activism places emphasis on empowerment and mobilisation of the common masses, which in turn makes the common masses aware of the issue. Once an issue is formulated it is easy to mobilise the community and bind them together to address it. This issue even binds likeminded people from different sectors, like the sufferers and the academicians, and joins them together to highlight the issues. This whole process develops awareness and capacity among local people to realise the importance of both legislation and their complimentary role in making it successful. It empowers the community to such an extent that they are able to demand transparency and accountability in existing structures and systems. The pressure from the victims and other stakeholders fighting for a common cause forces the systems to create space for the civil society to monitor the transparency and accountability. The best example is RTI in the implementation of MGNREGA. It empowers the community leaders to participate in monitoring the performances and thus enhances the effectiveness of the Act. On the other hand it provides them with a place in the negotiation and policy formulation, which in turn redistributes the power in the traditional power structures and affects the policy formulation in favour of the marginalised.


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Thus, in spite of all challenges, activism has the potential to ensure the rights up to an extent because it empowers the community to address the corruption collectively. If there is less corruption within the systems it will automatically enhance the performance of the Act and programmes and thus provide opportunities to the common masses to enjoy their entitlement and thus enjoy their rights.


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