On a blistering May afternoon, a group of street children from Sarai Kale Khan gather at a large, colourful basement in Gautam Nagar. Everyone is holding a copy of a black-and-white newspaper. 19-year-old editor-in-chief Chandni beckons them to sit on a large mat in the centre. After a few minutes, the editorial meeting starts. A couple of 16-year-old reporters demand to know why their stories weren’t published in the recent edition of the newspaper. Sub-editor Shambhu,17, tries to pacify an annoyed reporter whose story didn’t make it to page 1.
Later the reporters pitch new story ideas for the next edition — a street child getting married twice, unique bond between a boy and a dog, a couple of children collecting garbage by going door-to-door, a kid forced into child labour on the promise of education, etc. The editorial team discusses the stories they missed in the last edition and articles that require more investigation. Stories are assigned region-wise and field visits are decided.
This scene plays at almost every editorial meeting of Balaknama, an eight-page monthly newspaper run by street children on stories that reflect their lives. The tabloid is printed in Hindi and English.
There are 14 main reporters and 70 ‘batuni’ reporters. ‘Batuni’ reporters are those kids who cannot write and so dictate their stories to the main reporters. Stories are noted down in Hindi; the main reporters submit these for English translation to the editorial team.
“The idea for Balaknama came up when these children realised that they need to pen down their stories, experiences and aspirations. The society needs to understand that these children have an identity and the right to live a dignified life,” said Sanno Khan, advisor and former editor.
Balaknama is mentored and supported financially by an NGO, Chetna. The newspaper was launched as a quarterly edition of two pages in Hindi on September 2003. It became a popular medium for street children to share stories. Child reporters from Delhi, Agra, Jhansi, Mathura and Gwalior contributed to the newspaper. Slowly, the circulation increased.
“We distribute the newspaper free of cost among street children. Also, people who know about Balaknama buy it from us for Rs 2,” said Chandni. An English version was launched in December 2014. Today, the group produces 5,000 Hindi and 3,000 English copies each month.
Reporter Jyoti, 16, joined Balaknama when she was eight. Poverty at home forced her to pick rags and beg on the streets. “I had never gone to school. But Chetna volunteers enrolled me in their basic education classes. I began learning basic English, Hindi and Math. There, I was made to lead 35 children and became a ‘batuni’ reporter,” said Jyoti.
All reporters attend classes in the morning and go for reporting later in the afternoon.
Shambhu came to the Capital with his father and would sell cucumbers around Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station. “I was often beaten up. Private contractors and police would ask for bribes. I wanted to go to school, get a proper education and come out of this cruel lifestyle. But all hope was lost, or so I thought, before Chetna approached me,” he said. Today Shambhu is a student of class 10. When he learnt about Balaknama, he decided to contribute. He began doing field visits, talking to other street children and wrote stories on child labour, police brutality and human interest stories on street children.
Balaknama reporters say it takes 10-12 days to investigate and write a story. Reporters travel by buses to reach their destinations. Reporters from Agra and Mathura send their stories as scanned copies or through courier service.
They face many hurdles while investigating a subject. Recently, some hostile locals restricted their entry after a negative story appeared from their area.
“Some kids are scared to speak to us. We promise not to publish their names in the newspaper. Only then they tell us about cases of police brutality or sexual abuse. Some parents discourage their children from meeting us. This is a big problem,” said Chandni.
She said there is no census or proper case study to determine the number of street children in Delhi. “So we decided to do it ourselves. We went to Sarai Kale Khan and did a survey. There are 1,320 street children living in that area alone,” said Chandni.
Balaknama team laments that they are struggling to find advertisers or financial assistance. Another problem is that the newspaper cannot be registered because majority of the staff is underage.