Rights! Right!

Rights are hard to locate. One man’s rigorous beliefs in his “cultural” assertion are another woman’s confinement and destitution. The rights of a nation, of a people, run against the path of development chosen by a state. The rights of a majority community overshadow the rights of a minority. The rights of those who are incapacitated or challenged are questioned by those who are described as “normal.” One man’s right to luxury runs a collision course with another man’s tryst with survival.

Rights are for those who have power. Those who have the muscle — the guns, the money and the connections to weave in and out and play games with the tenets of civil law and the ideals of a perfect and fair society, as laid out originally by a band of constitutionalists with dream in their eyes.

Rights are there for journalists who distort, provoke and vitiate hatred by planting misleading stories that are pernicious and provocative and rights are not there for journalists who want to tell the truth, to expose inequality. Rights are there for policemen to plead self-defence after killing kids for playing in the park and not for the families of immigrant communities whose neighbourhoods remain encrusted with blight and neglect and lack of facilities.  This is the way it has been. Rights are defined by the interest you represent. The interests that emanate essentially from economic clout or the lack of them, as the case maybe. Rights are incipient to the conflict between the haves and the have nots.  Between the powerful and rich and the poor and destitute. Between the articulate, educated, noisy and the soft-spoken, resolute and less strident. That is why rights are all about class roots. And cultural differentials cover up everything else. The overlays, the distractions and the disconnect begin! The relational vectors that launch out in different directions as opposed to the mean resolution to overcome poverty and powerlessness. The irrelevance of the price of tea in China is what it sounds like when the question of rights is divorced from any discussion on poverty!

There are civil and equal rights and then there are human rights. The right to survive, to live, comes before even the right to constitutional access. Where there are no human rights, civil rights is a far cry.  The demand for rights are relative. The rights of people in Burkina Faso and the rights of people in Yonkers, NY.   The only common denominator is poverty. The source!

In the last two weeks I have been in New York and Mumbai. Travelling on trains and planes over and past slums, ghettoes and run down neighbourhoods. Two cities, where blight is cloaked by tales of terror that invoke warmongering aggressiveness.

When you want to describe poverty, you have to travel by it by train. Because trains, as we all know, never go through the neighbourhoods of the well-endowed or pass through the backyards of households that have  graded, stepped lawns, households that have butlers and cooks who announce the menu before each meal with a dash of Spanish, Italian or French thrown in demurely. Trains move through abandoned, neglected and forlorn neighbourhoods and dark and dreary underpasses, where blight, collapsing balconies, tin sheds, abandoned container yards and rustic town facades duel with splendidly colourful graphiti-ed walls and children chasing each other behind broken bottle-strewn backyards and cabins with plastic sheeted windows. No I am not travelling the Sealdah railways station corridor, in West Bengal India, but taking an Amtrak to New York along the Hudson from Montreal. Town after town streams by or comes to a screeching halt under the wheels of the Bombardier-made train as one or two passengers get in or get off with their duffel bags and backpacks, mostly students headed for the big city further down south.

And a week later, the sun has not come up yet in Mumbai and I am driving from the airport to my hotel. This is one week after the carnage. There is a huge pile of uncollected garbage on top of a cement platform. It is very large. The platform. On its other side, rows of people are lying down. Not a stir. A large rodent wobbles out of the pile and moves slowly towards the feet of one of the sleepers. My cab slows down in Mumbai and  I feel the train slowing down as it approaches Saratoga Springs. Here are signs that the cars are in better shape at the station parking lot and therefore there are some signs of affluence. More students are seen off by parents who are still clinging on to their SUVS. In the dark, I can see a man slumped on a bench. Further up, I reach my hotel in Mumbai  and a long stream of Mercedes Benzes are lined up and smartly dressed security personnel are running metal detectors over everybody. Rights, you ask? It cuts a swathe through all nations, but poverty is what decides who has it and who does not.