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There’s a Scrappy new news service, and all its reporters are under 14

Kids from some of the poorest parts of India are anchoring, reporting and even shooting news bulletins about issues that matter to them and their communities.

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 09, 2017 11:46 IST
Anesha George
Anesha George
Hindustan Times
Scrappy News Service,Going To School,Children's news
Dheeraj Bhatt, 10, rehearses with his co-anchor Valeska Jacinto (in yellow), 12, as city reporters crowd around. They report on everything from sanitation, climate change and waste segregation to how to help out your not-so-tech-savvy grandparents. (Satish Bate / HT Photo)

In a makeshift newsroom made from bamboo sticks and brightly painted gunny bags, 10-year-old Dheeraj Bhatt is talking into a microphone.

“Hello and welcome to the children’s scrapping, err… scrappy news service,” says the chirpy anchor. “Today’s show is about reclaiming our lost playgrounds...”

The newsroom is in a fishing village in Mumbai; the walls are covered in glitter and fairy lights. A rickety red car seat serves as the ‘couch’ for guests, who typically include electricians, plumbers, carpenters and local parents.

This is the headquarters of the Scrappy News Service, an initiative of the Delhi-based non-profit organisation Going To School (GTS).

It has two anchors, including Bhatt, who lives in a Mumbai slum, and a team of 2,100 reporters spread across Mumbai; Bengaluru, Tumkur and Mangaluru in Karnataka; 22 towns in Bihar; and Jalandar in Punjab.

Anchors and reporters are all aged 10 to 14, from underprivileged families and impoverished areas. What started out as a confidence-building exercise is now a website and an app, both of which were launched on Children’s Day (November 14).

So far, 50 videos have been uploaded on the Scrappy News YouTube channel (which has 1,066 subscribers), and 10 on the website.

‘To be scrappy means changing the world with whatever you have. You don’t need to speak English or have top-notch gadgets, you just need to have a head full of ideas,’ says founder Lisa Heydlauff.

The launch saw well-known TV journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai, NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan and The News Minute’s Dhanya Rajendran send in videos of how delighted they were to see children engaging with TV, and their communities, in fresh new ways.

“Scrappy news is typically what you would call ‘Made in India’ — although I am not,” says British-American Lisa Heydlauff, founder and director of GTS. “Everything from the issues and solutions to the newsrooms themselves is made in India and revolves around the many good and little bad things about this country.”

Their hour-long news-cum-talk shows explore issues such as sanitation, climate change, waste segregation or just how to help out your not-so-tech-savvy grandparents.

The scripts are written by the kids, with help from GTS employees, and most shows end with a Scrappy Campaign where kids brainstorm for solutions that can be implemented offline — for the problem of lonely grandparents, a simple get-together was organised in a government school in Bhagalpur last year, with a movie screening, snacks and socialising time.

How it all began

Heydlauff came to India from the UK 19 years ago to write a children’s book, and stayed on. She set up GTS in 2003, to promote innovation and entrepreneurship among underprivileged children.

“We started with children from the poorest communities, the idea being that while education is important, kids also need to know how to tackle issues, come up with sustainable ideas, work as a team and take the initiative,” says Heydlauff.

‘Scrappy News started with the idea of showing parents that their kids were fearless, full of creativity and could break down complex issues to come up with their own solutions. Then we realised that we needed to take this out to the world,' says Lisa Heydlauff, the British-American founder of the NGO Going To School. (Satish Bate / HT Photo)

In 2012, the NGO signed an MoU with the Bihar government to work with students across 2,500 government secondary schools in the state. They now have a presence across three states in India.

“We soon realised that although the kids were brimming with ideas to bring about a change in the world, their own parents at home did not seem to understand their potential,” says Heydlauff. “Scrappy News started with the idea of showing parents that their kids were fearless, full of creativity and could break down complex issues in their own way to come up with solutions. Then we realised that we needed to take this out to the world.”

To be Scrappy, means changing the world with whatever you have, Heydlauff adds. “You don’t need to speak English or have access to top-notch gadgets, you just need to have a head full of ideas and the enthusiasm to execute it,” she adds.

The training

In Mumbai, the Team Scrappy kids recall how, two years ago, a big truck painted in rainbow colours with ‘Be Scrappy’ scrawled all over it showed up in their slums, and began holding auditions.

“We just repurposed an old truck and decided to take our crew and drive around, inviting kids to try out. The results were fantastic. We ended up auditioning some 1,500 kids and four were finally selected in that first round,” says Padmini Vaidyanathan, 33, director for Scrappy News.

Reporters in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, host a talk show in a makeshift outdoor studio.
‘We were taught how to speak clearly, practice in front of the mirror and most importantly, and know that it is okay to fumble, but not to stop,’ says anchor Valeska Jacinto, 12.

Then began the training sessions, with reporters and anchors from major media houses pitching in.

“In Bihar and Karnataka, we trained the kids ourselves,” Vaidyanathan says. “We talked to them about identifying local issues, finding local heroes who were taking on those issues, and coming up with campaigns to solve them.”

In Mumbai, they had industry expert help from people like TV journalist-turned-businesswoman Mahruk Inayet, actor Siddhant Behl and stand-up comedian Nitesh Shetty.

Valeska Jacinto, 12, who co-anchors the show with Dheeraj says, “We were taught how to speak clearly, practice in front of the mirror and most importantly, and know that it is okay to fumble, but not stop.”

She talks about how she was learnt the tricks of the trade, by putting a pen beneath her tongue and talking loudly so that every word was clear. “Marukh ma’am told us how she covered the 26/11 attacks amid the sound of shooting and grenades blowing up parts of The Taj,” says Valeska. “It was really inspirational for us, because it told us the life of a regular reporter is like.”

Inayet, held ten training sessions with the little anchors and reporters in 2015, during their summer vacation. “It was an eye-opener,” she says. “The kids are all quite young and I was amazed to see how they truly had their own perspective to everything. It was not about making them memorise lines by rote, but about understanding what they grasp from a situation. They weren’t inhibited, or conscious of gawking strangers during outdoor shoots. The freshness they bring to the screen is what makes the idea of Scrappy News tick so well.”

When they’re not arguing about who’s stealing whose lines and taking up more screen space, Dheeraj and Valeska are good friends. But once Mumbai reporters Samad Sheikh and Rajlakshmi Sapkale join them, it gets difficult for the NGO staff to handle the energy in the newsroom, says Scrappy News director Padmini Vaidyanathan. (Satish Bate / HT Photo)

For Mumbai reporter Rajlakshmi Sapkale, 14, from Worli Koliwada, her biggest high point was when she sent a YouTube clip of her interviewing people on the city streets to her parents back in her village in Maharashtra.

“My parents saw it on a computer there and called their neighbours to show how ‘smart’ I had become. They were proud because they feel now their little girl has become confident enough to go looking for stories and get answers out of strangers,” she laughs, shyly.

When they are not arguing about who is stealing whose lines and who is taking up more screen space, Dheeraj and Valeska are good friends. But once Mumbai reporters Samad Sheikh, 14, and Rajlakshmi join them, it gets difficult for the show producers to handle the energy in the newsroom.

They are usually ganging up against Dheeraj, who claims he doesn’t need a script to anchor. “I can ever stick to the script they give me because I forget,” he grins. “But it is the job of the anchor to improvise and add his bit isn’t it?” he laughs.

On the ground

The Scrappy kids are divided into teams — anchors and reporters, videographers, script-writers, even producers who brainstorm on how it will all be put together. Volunteers do the editing.

The tricky part, the kids say, is looking for news. One of their stories, ‘Horn please’, was about the high-decibel horns in Bhagalpur, Bihar. During investigation, the reporters found out that a lot of people went to garages to get make their vehicle horns changed to a few decibels louder. That was a big scoop.

Reorters in Bengaluru interview vegetable vendors about rising prices.
‘My daughter recently did a story on the lack of toilets. When we visited our village, she spoke to girls there about keeping toilets clean. I was really proud,’ says government school teacher Ajeet Bhanu.

“The end result is that all the kids are doing something they have never done before, and living the life of professional journalists,” says Vikas Dheer, 32, who works with GTS in Muzaffarpur.

Jarang-based government school teacher Ajeet Bhanu, whose daughter Tanu Shri, 14, is a Scrappy News reporter, says he has noticed a huge change in his daughter’s confidence in the last seven months. “She recently did a story on the lack of toilets in the homes of people in Jarang and was very concerned. When we visited our village, she spoke to girls there, telling them about sanitation and how to keep the toilets clean in their own homes and I was really proud.”

In one episode, Valesca and Dheeraj will discuss the lack of playgrounds in India, with inputs from reporters in Bihar and Karnataka.

In Mangaluru, students discussed the lack of places to swim; in Tumkur, they talked to farmers about organic farming. Prajwal C, 12, a Scrappy news reporter from Bengaluru, says he had no idea about how civic issues were solved, till he stepped out onto the streets to report on them.

“I was used to a set up where grown-ups asked us questions in class. Today I am the one asking important questions to people I had never met in my life. I was scared of being scolded, people have walked away also, but once I do get a story and come home and see the final cut on YouTube, I feel like I’m doing something big for society,” he says.

Fitting it all in — school, training sessions and homework — is sometimes a challenge, the kids admit. “But we don’t get tired or cranky,” says Dheeraj, fiddling with his microphone. “We feel grown up and important, like this is our job”.

First Published: Dec 02, 2017 19:55 IST