NEW DELHI — The journalists gathered for an editorial meeting at their newspaper in the Indian capital. Their work includes hard-hitting reportage and investigative scoops that other publications in the country followed up on.
The group of journalists are unlike most others. They live on the streets. And they are all under the age of 18.
Their paper, a New Dehlhi monthly called Balaknama or â€˜Voice of Children,' publishes stories of children living and working on the streets. Exploring topics such as child sexual abuse, child labor and police brutality, the newspaper has doubled in size from its original four pages, and is now sold across the city at a nominal price of two Indian rupees, or about $.02 cents. It's free for other street children, of course.
India is home to more than 10 million street children, a population that is vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. An NGO called Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action, or "Chetna," recruits the street children as reporters from the group's learning centers.
The newspaper's latest edition was dedicated to the â€˜International Day of Street Children,' which was celebrated on April 12. The paper's editor, 17-year-old Chandni, has a story about children living on railway platforms and contains a startling investigative revelation: "A few of them told me that the police force the children living at the railway stations to retrieve the bodies of people who are killed on the railway tracks," she says. "The children say that if they refuse, the police won't allow them to stay on the railway platform."
Among the lucky
This is not Chandni's first job. After her father died, she was forced to sell flowers at traffic lights to earn money. But she counts herself as one of the lucky ones: she met volunteers from the Chetna organization who encouraged her to go to school and offered her a modest stipend to keep her off the streets. The group also trained her as a reporter for Balaknama, where Chandni has worked since 2008.
Hot off the presses in New Delhi — Photo: KBR
The paper, which is distributed at police stations, child rights' NGOs and government departments, has a staff of 70 reporters between the ages of 12 and 18, who are based in bureaus in Delhi as well as the neighboring states of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Liza, 13, was scavenging and begging at the railway station, and was hooked on cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, before meeting volunteers from Chetna. "They told me about Balaknama but said that if I wanted to join I would have to quit all my vices. I managed to do it and I'm now enrolled in eighht grade," she said.
The reporters at Balaknama are split into two. The children who cannot write are known as â€˜talking reporters' and dictate their stories to the â€˜writer' reporters.
Liza started off as a talking reporter but has since been promoted to a writer position. She said her best story so far was about four children aged between 6 and 7 who had been working at a roadside restaurant. "They were rescued with the help of my NGO, and then I reported the story in my newspaper," she said.
It wasn't the only time officials were forced to take action. Another story published in the paper recently prompted India's National Committee for the Protection of Child Rights, the top government agency for children, to take steps against the police.
Chandni, the editor, said she hopes the paper will continue to empower street children in India by hearing — and telling — their stories.