Balaknama: The Street Children’s Newsroom

People

Balaknama: The Street Children’s Newsroom

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/Arré

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eventeen-year-old Shambhu is your average street kid. He washes cars and works shifts as a waiter by night. By day, he goes to a school run by an NGO. But there is one little special part to his day that differentiates him from the million other street kids in India – Shambu is a news reporter and editor-in-chief for Balaknama, India’s only newspaper published by street children.

Balaknama is unlike any other newspaper you will ever read. It does not involve itself with politics or popular stars. Instead, it highlights issues faced by street children in Delhi, Noida, Agra, and Lucknow. The stories are decided by the editorial team of 14 children, including Shambu, at their office rented by Chetna, a non-profit organisation, in the poor neighbourhood of Sarai Kale Khan in Delhi.

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In a media landscape dominated by loud mouths and PR agencies masquerading under the rubric of journalism, Balaknama, started in September 2003, has only one aim – educating children living on Indian streets about their rights, and presenting their problems to the government. The paper, which began with a quarterly four-page edition, is now published every month with eight pages of newsprint. The team now has a translator on board and publishes an English edition as well.

At the edit meeting today, Shambhu is joined by his fellow reporters Chetan, Deepak, and Jyoti. The meeting is being supervised by 22-year-old Shanno, who stepped back from the everyday workings of Balaknama when she turned 18. (That’s the “retirement age” here.) She is now pursuing sociology from IGNOU, but drops by now and then to help them out.

Balaknama, started in September 2003, has only one aim – educating children living on Indian streets about their rights, and presenting their problems to the government.

Today, Shanno is designing a page on an Intel Pentium 4 computer in a tiny room where the walls are covered with the team’s favourite stories. One of them is from Labour Day (May 1): Street kids from 14 states assembled at National Bal Bhawan in Central Delhi and ironically celebrated National Child Labour Day, which no mainstream media house covered. Back then, Shanno was at the helm.

After Shanno’s retirement, Shambu has taken charge. Now he presides over most support meetings, where the children learn to investigate, communicate properly, and became batuni (talking) reporters. The next step is to learn to read and write before they are prompoted to the post of “writing reporters”. They all dream that one day they will become editors too like Shambu.

Our current meeting spot is near Nizamuddin. Street children from across Delhi have congregated here to pitch story ideas to one of the 64 batuni reporters in the city. A list of these ideas will be sent to all Balaknama reporters, after which an action plan will be formulated and shared with everyone on WhatsApp. Like in any other newspaper, reporters are then expected to go out on the field to investigate the commissioned pieces. They have to submit their stories before the deadline, the 25th of every month. Then the desk gets into action: After a rigorous copy check and giving headlines, the newspaper is sent for printing. Five thousand copies of the Hindi edition and 1,000 of the English one, all telling stories from the streets of north India, for a mere ₹5.

balaknama

Five thousand copies of the Hindi edition and 1,000 of the English one, all telling stories from the streets of north India, for a mere ₹5.

“A for Aeppel, B for baull” rings in the air as the edit meet heats up. Shambhu wants more space for his story on the lives of pre-teens, who live under flyovers during the cold winter months, while Deepak wants space for his report about a nine-year-old who waits tables at a Dhabha in Noida Sector 18 because his mother has taken a loan from the owner.

Sixteen-year-old Deepak, by the way, also doubles up as the paper’s distributor, a responsibility he takes very seriously. After they receive their shipment from a printing press in Daryaganj, Deepak, along with Balaknama’s South Delhi reporter Jyoti, goes to the famed Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar markets to sell the newspaper. Deepak then goes to government offices and police stations in the area. He also sends the paper via WhatsApp and couriers it to those outside Delhi.

They have to submit their stories before the 25th of every month. Then the desk gets into action: After a rigorous copy check and giving headlines, the newspaper is sent for printing.

As sun sets over the smoggy city, reporters start quizzing me on the stories I do, how I look for them, and why I chose journalism. I’m reluctant to answer them. Now that I’ve heard their compelling stories, I feel stupid to say that I became a writer because it feels cool to write things on the internet. So I tell them a joke about a drunk journalist; they seem pleased.

As I say my goodbyes, I think about privilege and how it plays a big role when it comes to anointing yourself with the task of telling stories. We’ve earned our journalism degrees, read our fine books, and boned up on ideology. So here we are, walking, talking journalists. But these children do not enjoy such privilege. All they’ve crammed up is experience, which is why even at 14 they’re entitled to tell us stories.

The streets, they often say, make addicts of even the best of us, but Balakanama shows that when channelled correctly, they even make writers.

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