Eighteen-year-old Chandni presides over the editorial meeting of Balaknama — a unique newspaper brought out by children living and working on the streets — in a rundown basement of a south Delhi house.
As editor Chandni and her team of reporters sit on the ground in a circle, each clutching a copy of the quarterly tabloid’s current issue, the atmosphere is charged, much like that of an edit meet at any regular newspaper. She is grilling one of her reporters, 17-year-old Shambhu, about a story he has filed.
A female colleague asks her if a story she filed on a minor girl being made to work as a maid by her parents will be carried in the next issue, and Chandni responds politely, but firmly: “You need to investigate a little more. The story has a few gaps.”
Today Chandni is a confident and passionate editor.
But until as recently as five years ago, she was a street entertainer and a rag picker.
Her family shifted to Delhi from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh when she was four. A year later, she started performing on the streets with her father— dancing, singing and tight-rope walking.
But tragedy struck in 2008 when her father died of stroke.
That was the end of Chandni’s career as a street performer. With the family’s finances draining quickly, a desperate Chandni, who was around 11 then, started working as a rag picker.
However, life took a turn for the better in 2009 when she met volunteers of NGO Chetna during a street play in Noida.
It is this organisation that helps run Balaknama.
The NGO enrolled her in open school programme in 2010. Simultaneously, she trained with the NGO to be a reporter for the paper, and by 2014 she had worked her way up to become its editor.
Chandni ,who is studying for Class 10 examination, was recently invited to speak at a TEDx event in Bangalore. Her 18-minute speech about her life and how her newspaper is changing the lives of street children won her a standing ovation.
As one speaks to her, it is evident that she is more excited talking about the newspaper she edits than about herself.
The circulation, she says proudly, has gone up from 4,000 to 5,500 since she took over as editor last year.
“I increased the pages from four to eight recently, and also commissioned a new design. The paper looks so much better now,” she says as she holds up both the new as well as the old design.
Balaknama, which means children’s voice, is an eight-page tabloid that publishes stories on the lives of street children. It delves into issues of sexual abuse, child labour, police brutality-- and about the positive change in their lives.
Ask Chandni who her best reporter is and she is quick to point to Shambhu.
He is a Class-10 student, who speaks with the confidence of a seasoned journalist. “Street children are the subject and sources of my stories.
Unfortunately, their stories are not covered in the mainstream media. A lot of my stories are about exploitation of these children. But what makes me the happiest is when I get stories of positive change in their lives,” he says.
Many of the paper’s stories about street children , he says says, attracted the attention of kind people who helped them in many ways, including ensuring their education.
“There are thousands of street children in the Capital who need help,” says Shambhu.
He is not exaggerating. India has the largest population of street children in the world. Though there is no official census, the country has an estimated 18 million children living or working on the streets, and the Capital alone accounts for 0.4 million of them.
The newspaper has 14 regular reporters in Delhi alone and many others in UP, MP and Haryana.
Additionally, it has several batnooni reporters — children who are good at reporting but cannot write and instead dictate their stories to regular Balakanama reporters.
The average age of a Balaknama reporter is 14. Most of them live in slums and shanties. They study through open school, and work alongside to support their families.
Shambhu, for instance, cleans cars in the morning, then attends classes at an open school centre, and in the afternoon works as a reporter.
Chandni is very proud of her team and the stories that her paper has done. “One of the biggest stories we broke recently was about how policemen at railway stations used street children to carry bodies, mostly of accident victims and those who committed suicide. The story created a stir and was picked up by the mainstream media,” she says.
Chetna director Sanjay Gupta says the idea behind the paper is to give a voice to voiceless street children.
“We only provide training to those who want to join the paper as a reporter. The paper mainly gets by through donations. We don’t interfere in the paper’s editorial affairs. These children are articulate and know what they are writing about,” says Gupta.
At Balaknama, all new reporters are trained by the older experienced ones at the NGO’s residential workshop.