WHEN mainstream newspapers did not provide adequate coverage to their issues, they decided to become their own storytellers. Ragpickers by morning and journalists during the day, the reporters at Balaknama are unique in more ways than one. Created by, for and about children below 18 years of age, Balaknama , or “child’s diary”, is perhaps the only street news tabloid in the country today that is owned by the poor and the homeless. And it has transformed the lives of close to 10,000 street children associated with it in myriad ways.
Its 18-year-old editor, Chandni, voices this transformatory experience when she says: “ Balaknama has become my identity. I shudder to think what I would be doing had I not come in contact with Balaknama or Badhte Kadam [a social service initiative]. Today, when I show the newspaper to our relatives, they have a look of disbelief on their faces and refuse to believe that someone like me could work in a place like this.” The sense of ownership and pride in the paper is palpable in Chandni’s words.
She was about five years old when her parents migrated to New Delhi from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh in search of work. Being the oldest, she had to contribute to the family coffers and she was unable to take up studies despite being fascinated by the idea of school and games. Hailing from the nomadic gypsy tribe of Qalandar, she was fated to perform on the streets with her father, before turning to slightly more income-generating work such as sorting trash and selling flowers and corn in the marketplace. “The police would always be around, wielding sticks to drive us away,” says Chandni. These early experiences ingrained in her, as in other street children, a great fear of the police.
Chetna’s helping hand
When, in 2010, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action (Chetna) came to their slum area comprising 100-150 jhuggi s (mud huts) and offered to teach the children for free, Chandni jumped at the chance. The going was not smooth because of resistance from her family, especially her mother who was worried that the family would lose an earning member. Representatives from the NGO, who too were from the streets, met her mother and other parents facing similar predicaments and talked them into letting their children attend school for an hour or two every day, mainly during lunch hour. In this way, through persuasive advocacy, Chetna was able to enrol thousands of children in the Open Basic Education (OBE) programme in New Delhi alone. The OBE is an initiative of the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to provide elementary education for school dropouts, neoliterates and out-of-school learners through accredited agencies. Since children give up their livelihood (ragpicking, selling wares, etc.,) to be reporters with Balaknama , all the children associated with Balaknama are required to take up education under open or formal schooling. All the associated expenditure and a monthly stipend are provided by Chetna.
Chandni rose through the ranks of the organisation to become the editor of Balaknama , but her story reflects the condition of hundreds of children in Badhte Kadam, a collective of street children. It was launched in 2002 under the aegis of Chetna by street children who felt they needed to organise themselves against the tyranny of the police and civil society’s disregard for them. Shambhu, who used to sell corn at the Nizamuddin railway station, washes bikes in the mornings, takes lessons under open school afterwards, and turns reporter for Balaknama for the rest of the day. He also works amongst street kids, steering them away from the use of intoxicants and such other habits. Vijay Kumar, one of the oldest children, and former national secretary of Badhte Kadam, is now an avid photographer who specialises in street photography and has a few exhibitions under his belt. Chandni recently gave a Ted talk and a localised version of it in Delhi called Josh Talk, which brought her widespread recognition.
While reporting on poverty, employment issues, homelessness, discrimination, police brutality and addiction problems faced by children on the street, the reporters often encounter instances where children are in need of intervention. The younger children are taught by their seniors in the organisation about governance, the value of education, laws and human rights through innovative games. “If we give them lectures, they will run away,” says Shanno, former editor Balaknama , now 20 years old and retained as an adviser with the paper. She attended regular school up to Class V, but had to drop out to earn money owing to her family circumstances. She worked in a factory day and night, with a few gaps in between. The factory manufactured hooks and she was paid 50 paise for 24 pieces. She happened to come across Chetna volunteers conducting activities at a graveyard near her house. When she slowly took part in their programmes and won an award for her drawing of the Taj Mahal, she was overwhelmed by the respect she received from the group and decided to get back to studies. Currently, she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Indira Gandhi National Open University, while also managing affairs at Balaknama .Life-changing moment
For most of the kids, being taken to Dehradun for a training module was a life-altering moment. “We were all so overwhelmed that once we returned, there was a new energy and power surging through us. Somehow I felt that my life would never be the same again,” says Chandni. The moment she returned from training, she heard that three children, aged five, seven and 10, had been locked up at the local police station on charges of stealing a street light. Though afraid of the police, she boldly walked in and demanded that they be freed. After an altercation with the station house officer (SHO), who was befuddled to find this small girl telling him about the illegality of incarcerating children, she burst into tears. But the next day, she was back at the station and did not relent until the SHO let the children go. If things had gotten worse, she would have called Childline: 1098, a helpline for children’s issues, which is mostly prompt, she says. That day, she lost her fear of the cops forever.
Growing from strength to strength, Balaknama is now printed on eight pages as against the earlier four, she says proudly. The children not only report and write but also double as vendors and distribute copies to readers on the streets, among NGOs and advocacy groups and even in embassies.
Wholly supported by Chetna, Balaknama ’s future trajectory depends on the flow of funds, which has not been very encouraging over the past six months. The print order for the Hindi edition is 5,000 and it is 3,000 for the English edition, which is translated by a former intern, Richa Somvanshi, for a nominal fee. But the unwillingness of people to pay even Rs.2 for a copy means that most of the copies are distributed free. Owing to the fund crunch, Chetna’s activities have shrunk from four States (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana) to only two and the number of reporters at Balaknama has come down from 14 to five. To overcome the problem, they have devised the concept of a batooni reporter, or a reporter who narrates the story to a desk person who writes it down. If the story is sensitive, then the writer verifies it personally, as in the recent case of two child brides from Rajasthan found in the heart of Delhi. Chandni made several visits to Lajpat Nagar to meet and win the confidence of the child brides and assured them of anonymity before going ahead with the story.
Balaknama is an official newsletter and not yet a registered newspaper. Faced with the funds crisis, Chetna is now mulling registration to enable fundraising but is cautious. To circumvent the issue of ownership passing into adult hands, it is considering registering the paper under the names of Shanno and Chandni, both of whom are now above 18, says Sanjay Gupta, director, Chetna. “We have asked them if they would like to be proprietors,” says Sanjay. An engineer by training, Sanjay became interested in social work during his engagement with the National Service Scheme. His first placement was with an NGO in Betul, working on watershed management and he continued to work in that field for 10 years. While working in Betul, he and other like-minded people organised themselves under the banner of Chetna to teach in the nearby slums and intervene in whatever way possible. In 2002, Sanjay got an opportunity to start something on his own, with help from a donor agency, and he decided to register the name Chetna, which evolved to work for street children.
Chetna recently conducted a survey of street children. The idea evolved when Vijay Kumar went to London with Sanjay for a workshop where the issue of how to count street children was debated. On his return to Delhi, Vijay discussed it with the children, who decided to go ahead with the survey and enumerate by tying a thread on the wrists of street children. “This has got nothing to do with religion, but the idea evolved as it was found that children do not remove these threads,” says Sanjay. “Why not use a mark on the arm? The hands get so dirty that the mark won’t be visible,” he explains. Every decision in Badhte Kadam is arrived at through similar brainstorming by children. The idea of the survey was to convey the point that it was possible. “If children can do it, why not adults with all the resources at their disposal?” asks Sanjay.
Balaknama is not just a newspaper but a vision and an empowering tool for children. For out-of-school children, it is also a means of socialisation. “One way of looking at it is that it is a noble cause and an innovative method, but on the other hand questions of sustainability remain,” says Sanjay.