In the run-down basement of a south Delhi home, 18-year-old Chandni is presiding over an editorial meeting. Her team of reporters sits in a circle on the floor, each clutching a copy of the current issue of Balaknama, their quarterly tabloid.
Chandni, her keen-eyed editorial skills on display, grills one of her reporters, 17-year-old Shambhu, about a story he has filed. Another reporter asks if her story of a minor girl forced to work as a maid by her parents will be carried in the next issue. “You need to investigate a little more. The story has a few gaps,” Chandni responds firmly.
The atmosphere is charged, much like that of an edit meet at any other newspaper. But Balaknama is different from regular tabloids – for starters, it is completely staffed by children who live and work on the streets.
Until five years ago, Chandni 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 a 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 Chetna, an NGO which works with street and working children, during a street play in Noida.
In 2010, the NGO enrolled Chandni in an open school programme, while she simultaneously trained as a reporter for the tabloid. By 2014, she had worked her way up and taken over the reins as Balaknama’s editor.
The eight-page tabloid draws its stories from the lives of street children. It delves into issues of sexual abuse, child labour, police brutality as well as stories of hope and positive change.
Chandni, who is studying for her 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.
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
“Street children are the
subjects 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, 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.
The newspaper has 14 regular reporters in Delhi itself and many others in UP, MP and Haryana.
Additionally, it has several baatooni 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. Every new reporter who joins is trained by the older experienced ones at the NGO’s residential workshop.
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 Chetna director Sanjay Gupta says the idea behind the paper is to give a voice to 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.