There is a point in the second half of the recent blockbuster Gully Boy, when the protagonist’s father tells him that his circumstances don’t allow him to dream. I immediately connected it with my conversation with a rescued bonded labourer a few years ago. His vacant eyes had flickered momentarily, outraged by my question. He then went back to staring blankly at his hands, struggling to put in words what Gully Boy’s father had articulated in the movie – that he didn’t dare to dream.
I had found that interview particularly frustrating as the man replied in monosyllables to every question and then the deafening silence to my last question – what do you look forward to in the future, what are your dreams?
I had encountered similar silence very often, but mostly from the women, who would simply shrug their shoulders in response. But men often spoke after a long pause and mentioned a better job, ensuring their child was educated, a home. This man didn’t and his inability to respond has stayed with me and made me wonder why despite everything everyone did for him, his dreams had not been restored.
It all boils down to a release certificate that acknowledges him and others like him as bonded labourers. It entitles them to monetary compensation, land, housing and other benefits. If they are lucky, all that falls in place.
In some cases, justice, though elusive, is also accessed. Suddenly, from being in debt bondage, the person is free, has a home, some land, a job and school going children.
But the ability to dream is not restored. Though free, he or she is shackled by their mind and its refusal to envision a future.
There are ambitious plans and proposals for every person rescued from brick kilns, rice mills and farms. But strangely, they don’t look at the mental state of a rescued person. They fail to acknowledge that years in debt bondage mean both physical and mental enslavement. Today, authorities work to set them physically free but there is no acknowledgement of their mental state and the trauma that has been internalised and normalised.
Access to mental health practitioners is a challenge in India. There is a great shortage of psychologists and trained social workers. Labour trafficking campaigns are limited to awareness drives on safe migration, helpline numbers and then rehabilitation.
But as a society are we doing enough to allow the survivor to freely think and desire?
It is a question that I have raised many times and never found a satisfactory response to. Each time I finish an interview, head back home and sit down to write the report, the larger unanswered question looms large.
To truly be free from slavery, the man I met a few years back must have the ability to dream outrageously. He needs to have plans, goals that drive him and allow him to question the status quo. Because when dreams die, so does a little bit of soul.
By Anuradha Nagaraj