Shambhu was only nine when he and his father left Bihar for New Delhi in search of work. They settled in a make-shift house in Sarai Kale Khan, not far from the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station. Soon, Shambhu picked up petty work on the station to make ends meet. Back then he was then known as the skinny boy from Bihar. Today, he is fondly called the ‘editor sahab‘ of Balaknama, a monthly bilingual newspaper run by street-children. Today, 17-year-old Shambhu leaves home at 5 am to wash cars in Jangpura Extension and then resumes his work as the editor. “This is the 66th English edition,” he says proudly, holding up a copy of the paper. “Our motive is to take the voices of the street children to the government”.
The first edition of Balaknama came out in September 2003 when members of Badhte Kadam, a federation of street and working children founded in 2002 by the NGO Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action (CHETNA), sought a way to tell their stories, in their own words, to the world. The newspaper is now run by more than 60 reporters between the ages of 12 and 20, based in Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
“Most people keep pushing us around like garbage because we beg, pick their litter and do ‘dirty work’. They think we will keep doing what we are doing now. But we want them to know we have a voice and rights too,” says 16-year-old Jyoti, speaking with the confidence of a seasoned reporter.
Reading and writing is a struggle for many of Balaknama‘s reporters, so these baatuni (talkative) reporters dictate their stories to Jyoti and other reporters who write and edit them. “I teach them games, listen to their problems and tell mine, that is how they open up to me,” she says.
Besides reporting on the injustices faced by street-children, the paper also aims to highlight stories of hope and positive change. Positive reports, like acts of bravery and generosity by fellow youngsters, get prioritised.
A few years ago, one story revealed how children living at railway stations were being forced to retrieve dead bodies of people who were killed on the tracks. The mainstream media picked up Balaknama’s report, leading to a huge public outcry. Eventually, the National Committee for Protection of Child Rights stepped in and took action against the police.
Over 5,000 copies in Hindi and 3,000 copies in English of are published each month of the 16-page paper, which is priced at Rs 5. Balaknama makes no profit and in entirely funded by CHETNA. Shambhu and his team of 14 reporters meet every Saturday in a run-down basement of a south Delhi home to discuss news from over the week. They also meet on the 25th of every month to decide on the layout and content of the newspaper. Like all editors, Shambhu’s biggest struggle is to decide which story goes on the front page. “All reporters want their story on the front page,” he says laughingly.
After Balaknama is published, Deepak, who is in charge of distribution, first hands out copies to the street children, or as he puts it, “to those who the newspaper belongs”. It is then sent to NGOs, government offices, schools and colleges, and is sold in markets across the city.
Globally, 700 million children have had their childhoods curtailed early. India ranks 116th among 172 countries assessed for threats to childhood. Thirty one million of the country’s children are part of the workforce. Balaknama aims to foster a feeling of empowerment among these children. For instance, Shambhu learnt how to read and write when he became a reporter. The paper is also editorially independent – the children decide what goes in it.
The newspaper also focuses on larger policy-level issues like sexual abuse and police brutality. It led a campaign to get street kids registered for Aadhaar a few years back. Their current focus is on the issue of child labour. The team did some research and found 100 child labour hotspots in south Delhi. They even took photographs of the children as evidence.
India’s estimated 400,000 street-children are ignored when authorities talk about child rights. According to a study by NGO Save the Children and the Institute for Human Development, the national capital is home to over 50,000 street children – constituting 0.4% of Delhi’s population. “The government has no official record of the number of kids who live on streets”, says Sanjay Gupta, founder of CHETNA. Jyoti adds, “We want that nothing stops a child from living his/her dream”.
Shambhu, who is now studying for his class 10 exams, was recently invited to speak at a TED talk event in Chennai. “When these children voted for me to be the editor, it was the best moment of my life. I went home and danced the whole night,” Shambhu recalls. He adds, “Balaknama has given us wings”.
To subscribe to Balaknama, visit https://balaknama.org or write to [email protected]