At the age of 17, Vikas Kumar has been through more than other teenagers could imagine.
When he was nine, he ran away from his abusive parents and worked as a rag picker for a couple of years at a local train station, battled drugs addiction and came out clean. Now, he works as reporter for India’s only newspaper for street kids.
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Balaknama, or Children’s Voice, is not like other newspapers. It is run by children who live on the streets, and focuses on the harsh realities of child labour, early marriages, sexual abuse and other issues affecting the thousands of children living in India’s slums.
“If a Bollywood actor’s dog gets hurt, it will be breaking news and will be covered by all newspapers and channels in India. But when a street kid dies on a railway platform or in an accident, no one seems to care,” said Kumar.
“We want everyone to treat street kids as equal citizens and we try our best to get their voice heard.”
This unique newspaper launched in 2003 with just 35 reporters in New Delhi. Their network has now spread to seven cities across India, with almost 10,000 children working for the publication. Its readership is thought to be in the tens of thousands.
Supported by local NGO Chetna, children like Kumar have found a purpose in life, fighting relentlessly for human rights.
Shanno once served as Balaknama’s editor, and is now an adviser to the project.
“When I met the support workers from Chetna, I used to think I was the only one who was deprived of education and had to work to support my family,” she said. “But during our sessions, I met so many other children with similar stories.”
One of the toughest aspects of the job is juggling the role with an unsupportive environment at home and extremely poor financial conditions.
“Through Balaknama, I got to learn about my rights and found the leader within myself,” Shanno said. “In the beginning, I had to lie to my parents that I found a job to be able to continue working for the newspaper.”
Most reporters invest time in visiting families to convince them to allow their children to join Balaknama, where they get a chance to study while working.
“I spend a lot of time counselling families and children to work as reporters, and once they see the photo or name of their child published in the newspaper, they are drawn towards us,” explained Shanno.
The eight-page newspaper covers stories from a diverse range of cities such as Delhi, Noida, Mathura, Jhansi, Gwalior and Agra.
“Every time we sit down in our editorial meeting, we fight hard to figure out which story will be on our front page,” Shanno said, adding that “our network of reporters works hard to get us unique stories which are not being covered anywhere else.”
One cover story, for example, detailed how homeless children can stay safe amid freezing temperatures in northern India.
“We saw a lot of coverage on how to stay warm during this winter in mainstream media, but nothing really talked about the children who are sleeping on the streets or under the bridges,” Kumar said. “So we decided that our cover story would be dedicated to this topic and direct kids to different places where they can find shelter during the harsh winter.”
With international news organisations approaching the children for interviews and documentaries, the young journalists have become mini-celebrities themselves.
“Our story about the orphaned slum kids who did not have access to education was shown on Channel 4 while they were filming a documentary on us,” Shanno said.
“There was an outpouring of support for the children, and it was through the donations of several viewers that those children were able to go to school. It feels great when our stories can make such a difference.”