Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Incredible India

As I'm learning in my job, the world is getting smaller thanks to technology.  For the past 10 years, I have taken delegations to China where I have witnessed the Sleeping Tiger transform magically before my eyes. In California, India is becoming our back-of-the house "Silicon Valley" and so I was intrigued to finally see India, the land of 1.2 billion people living in an area that is 1/3 of the US, and how I could learn here and bring back useful information to help the State of California. Although we didn’t travel to Mumbai, my thoughts were constantly straying towards that tragedy and all the people it affected.

Four nights in India is definitely not enough time.....I got called back to Special Session on Tuesday to try to resolve our budget crisis.   Although I am saddened to go, I am looking forward to lending a hand in solving California’s budget problems.

I found myself in planes for approximately 20 hours (one way). Upon landing at both airports in India, I noticed that people lived right beside both sides of the runway as if the airport was built around them.  I am told that although these people have been offered new homes, they don't want to move away from their jobs.

I landed in Ahmedabad, in the center of Gujarat State, grabbed a quick bite with my new favorite Chai drink, then off to the Rann Utsav, a 3 day festival hosted by the Chief Minister of Gujarat.  We set off on Mr Toad's Wild Ride, a 6 hour tour of the country where ox, bulls and cow walk freely about and lay on the side of the roads; dogs roam the streets belonging to no one and everyone; no cats in sight; camels pull the heavy loads; flocks of goat are led about by villagers and young boys; trucks dominate the roadways; people travel in buses, cars (many are CNG), took-tooks or taxis (also CNG), motorcycles and scooters (carrying from 1 to 5 family members), and  bicycles..... All of these people and machines share the road...giving each other courtesy passing honks ...everyone busy, trying to get to where they're going. People are everywhere: on the sides on the road, waiting for rides, manning small stores, working in the fields, and women in different colored saris carry pots/jars on their heads with kids in tow.  Donkeys and monkeys can also be seen if you look hard. This is how I pictured India.

Our travels take us through Kutch, the largest district in Gujarat, which is even larger than some of the states of India, and is the area that faced a 8.0+ devastating earthquake in Jan, 2001 where 20,000+ people died.  The City and County of SF donated $100,000 to help with the earthquake relief efforts.  Also, Indo Americans from California wanted to establish closer ties with Gujarat, the home state for many Indo Americans in the Bay Area.  Senate Concurrent Resolution No 4 (Burton) passed the Legislature in March 20, 2001 establishing the official California Gujarat Sister State Relationship so I was to going to bring good tidings from California. I met several members of the Indian Parliament who represent Gujarat and look forward to bringing more of my colleagues back to strengthen the sister-state relationships that we have been building.

At 6:00 am the next morning, we watched cricket on the TV as we waited for our morning Chai. We hired an "official guide" to be our much needed GPS system. The roads are surprisingly quiet at 7:00 am. The air is clear and crisp.  As the red sun rose behind us over the mountains, we took bets on how long it would take to get to our destination, given our driving challenges. For the most part, the land is flat and desert-like and we see patches of white resembling early morning snow, but really salt....

Mahatma Gandhi began his legendary march in March 1930 from Ahmedabad to Dandi with a band of followers that kept swelling as he headed to a coastal point near Surat in protest against the unfairness of the act that gave the monopoly of salt production to the British. On reaching Dandi, he picked up a handful of salt in protest and gained national attention and support for his freedom struggle effort. By day, the white desert looked like a big ocean; however by night, under the full moon, the salt sparkled liked crystals.

We traveled next to the beautiful lake/mountain city of Udaipur. The signature property is the White Lake Palace made famous in the James Bond movie "Octopussy".  I am reminded that the gap between the "Haves" and the "Have Nots" as I walked from the former Maharajah palaces through the old town.  This place was one of the most beautiful places I've been to yet I am deeply saddened that the city is not cleaner than I had expected (there is no national garbage collection system in India so the streets, lakes, and fields feels like a dumping ground).  As I was lamenting on this public health and nuisance issue over lunch, a large group of people caught my eye. I found out that earlier that morning, this group marched through the old town to the lake front to raise awareness for their inaugural cleanup effort. A dynamic woman named Deeksha Bhargava led the group of 150 volunteers who share a common vision for a cleaner society.  These wide-eyed, gaunt individuals were putting their own individual needs (poverty, food and water) aside for a day.  It was heart warming as they responded to my words of encouragement.  The volunteers were not being paid and Deeksha asked us for potential sponsors to help provide some minimal food and water for the volunteers for their monthly cleanups.   She explained that the lake was also the drinking supply for the town yet people bathed in the lake, washed their clothes, and it was full of construction debris and other garbage.  My group watched in awe and disbelief as the group work together to pull the algae and garbage out of the lake. Deeksha was living proof that one person can make a difference in this world and be a catalyst for change.

I cut my trip short to return to Sacramento and address the growing budget crisis. The Taj Mahal will have to wait until another day....