“We get pushed around and treated like garbage because there is no one to speak for us,” says Chandni, the 18-year-old editor of India’s only tabloid paper produced by street-children journalists, Balaknama (Hindi for “voice of children”).
Like all editors, Chandni’s biggest challenge is to decide which stories will make it to the front page, and managing the egos of those whose stories don’t. “As editor, I want to play up stories that are most impactful,” says Chandni. “But many reporters get upset when their stories don’t make the mark. So, yes, I do have to tread carefully.”
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The monthly newspaper has a team of 60 reporters between 12 and 20 years old and is based in Delhi and neighbouring states of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Most of the street-children reporters were recruited from learning centres run by NGOs the Federation for Street and Working Children (Badhte Kadam) and the NGO Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action (Chetna), which started Balaknama in 2003.
A lot of time is spent on writing the stories. “Many of our reporters started school after joining the paper so writing is a struggle for them,” says Chandni. The copy is written in Hindi and later translated into English.
Each paper is priced at a token 2 rupees and over 8,000 copies, most of them in Hindi, are published every month. Many of them are distributed free to police stations and NGOs working in the field of child rights. The paper makes no profit and is entirely NGO-funded.
Regardless, the sense of pride and accomplishment is evident.
“We filed a report on how the police was forcing children living in railway stations to retrieve the bodies of people who were killed on the tracks,” says Shambhu, 20, a senior reporter. “Imagine forcing a child to go down those dangerous tracks and retrieve bloody, mangled limbs!”
Mainstream news outlets picked up Balaknama’s report and it led to a huge outrage. Eventually, the National Committee for Protection of Child Rights stepped in and action was taken against the police.
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An estimated 51,000 children live on Delhi’s streets, some as young as five-years-old. They make a living by begging or rag picking and are subject to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Many are abandoned by their families or have run away from home.
Twelve-year-old Rustam is one of the lucky ones. He lives with his construction-worker parents but, like his three brothers and sister, missed out on school because he had to supplement the family income.
He started feeding Balaknama reporters stories last year and got a front-page splash when he alerted a senior reporter about a child marriage in June 2015. He was taken aback by what followed. “Local activists held protests and the police were forced to step in and stop the marriage from taking place. I became known in my neighbourhood and my parents felt so proud,” he glows.
For nearly a year now, Rustam has stopped begging and studies at a learning centre. He is paid a small fee for every story lead that he gives.
This feeling of empowerment is what Balaknama wants to foster among street kids. It does this by highlighting, not just the difficulties they face, but also stories of hope.
Positive reports about street kids who return lost items or help get back stolen goods get prioritised. “Street children feel worthless and hated by the world and we are trying to change that,” says Sanno, 20, a former Balaknama editor, who now advises the team.
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Balaknama also looks at larger policy-level issues. The paper campaigned to get street kids in Delhi national identity cards called Aadhar, which give proof of residence and when available, date of birth.
The paper has recently been focusing on the implications of the changes to the Juvenile Justice Act that allows children between the ages of 16-18 years to be tried as adults for crimes like rape and murder. The amended act has been criticised by child rights activists who say it could be misused to implicate innocent minors and that it would undermine the aim of reforming juvenile criminals. Balaknama has taken a strong position on the issue.
“Many street kids don’t have families,” says Chandni. “They don’t even know their date of birth and they have become vulnerable now. A 15-year-old can be turned into a 19-year-old.” She believes it’s a sign of how much farther they have to go to make India’s estimated 400,000 street children visible to those who matter.
“When authorities talk about children’s rights, they are looking at school-going children, with homes and families. No one is looking at the child living on the streets, or labouring inside homes and hotels. They still don’t exist.” Balaknama is determined to change this attitude by enabling street children to tell their own stories, in their own words.
This article was published in The Guardian dated April 14, 2016