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Photo courtesy of Harjit

Nazar Kooner addresses the gathering at the Sikh temple on South P Street with Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall and sister-city Mayor Bakshi Ram Arora of Amritsar to his left earlier this month in Bakersfield.

Bakersfield has been a target of disdain for so long, some local residents automatically flinch when we see a headline like this one from Punjab, India:

"Visit to 'sister-city' Bakersfield leaves city mayor disillusioned."

"Oh, no!" we groan. "Here it comes."

But read a bit further and you soon realize the mayor of Amritsar, Bakersfield's sister city in India, is indeed disillusioned -- but not by Bakersfield. He's disillusioned with the situation in his own city, as compared to -- yes, you guessed it -- impressive, awesome Bakersfield.

Amritsar, Mayor Bakshi Ram Arora told the Hindustan Times, is a far cry from the squeaky clean, law-abiding and "utterly honest" Bakersfield, given the monumental garbage heaps, rampant violation of traffic laws, instances of crime, and political support afforded to lawbreakers in Amritsar.

Located in northwestern India, not far from the border of Pakistan, Amritsar has a population of more than 1.1 million. It is home to the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion.

According to Mayor Arora, "In Amritsar, instances of law violations far outnumber those in which law is seriously enforced and observed."

"People in Bakersfield," he said, "will stop at a street signal, even on a virtually empty road, but such obedience is a rarity in Amritsar, where jumping traffic lights is quite a common violation."

Requests on Thursday and Friday for comment from Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall yielded no response, so The Californian turned to one of Bakersfield's most popular former mayors, Mary K. Shell.

"Mayor Arora, come back soon!" Shell quipped in response to the story. "It's really a breath of fresh air to hear you have said we are 'squeaky clean, law-abiding and utterly honest.'

"I'll take you and your family to dinner at one of our great locally owned restaurants," Shell continued, before adding the kicker, "Just don't look at the trash along the road on your way from the airport."

Nazar Kooner, a Bakersfield-area farmer and member of the local Sikh community, is chairman of the local Amritsar Sister City Committee.

"I think this man speaks the truth," he said of Arora. "It's a mess on the roads in Amritsar and other parts of India."

The visiting mayor was particularly impressed, Kooner said, that Hall joins other volunteers at the street level to pick up litter. Arora, Kooner said, saw Bakersfield as a model to be emulated.

"The mayor was amazed by what he saw here," he said.

Longtime Bakersfield City Councilman Harold Hanson agreed that it's refreshing to see Bakersfield through the eyes of a visitor. Many of the people who carry around a negative image of Bakersfield, Hanson said, have never spent time here.

"I'm a good example of that," he said. "In 1973, I drove through Bakersfield. I turned to my wife and said, 'Who the hell would live here?'"

But years later, when a job opportunity brought him back, he came to love his adopted home.

"I congratulate him on his observations," Hanson said of Arora.

But he also said the mayor of Amritsar has a gargantuan job ahead in trying to change cultural behaviors and institutional habits.

"I would tell him, 'Good luck. I hope you have a lot of patience,'" Hanson said. "Because it will be a learning experience. It can't be done if he doesn't have the police on his side."

Arora told the Times he was invited by Mayor Hall to celebrate something akin to a "harvest festival."

"We have reciprocated the gesture," he said, "by inviting him and his delegation to Amritsar for Diwali celebrations this year."