In the slums of Delhi, a group of impoverished Indian children are making their voices heard and their stories told; by publishing their own newspaper, which is now being read from London to the USA.
In the laneways of Old Delhi, a young editor and reporter are about to show me an unusual revival taking place across the country. Here in this sweaty time capsule of ink and machine Shambhu and Jyoti are printing almost 10,000 copies of a newspaper made entirely by street kids.
WOMAN (Translation): Do you ever get injured?
SHAMBHU, EDITOR (Translation): No.
WOMAN (Translation): Never? Maybe your fingers get stuck in the machine?
Right now around the world papers are dying, but in India the print industry is experiencing an incredible boom. This paper is called Balaknama in Hindi that means voice of the children …and it’s being read by people as far as away as London and the USA, what’s more surprising is Shambhu and Jyoti – and everyone at the paper are street kids.
SHAMBHU (Translation): The best thing is that this paper is run by children, those children who live on the street and who are considered as no good by society. We don’t print any news about adults, we only print news about street children to make their voices heard.
Jyoti’s excited, she’s never seen a paper printed before.
REPORTER: Do you want to become the editor of Balaklama one day?
JYOTI, SENIOR REPORTER (Translation): Yes, I want to become the editor of Balaknama. Just like Shambhu I want to feel that I made kids happy by choosing their stories.
India’s street kids are the poorest of the poor….Nicknamed the invisible children – because they live in the city’s shadows. This camp is sixteen year old Joyti’s home.
MOTHER (Translation): You’d better start chopping the vegetables.
She is the papers most senior reporter but Jyoti and her mum have just enough food for tonight.
JYOTI (Translation): Move, I will do it… In my life before I became a reporter, no one in my house showered, everyone was so dirty. When I took a bath it felt strange. Everything I write is a reflection of my own life and that's difficult.
Her home is a slum next to this major bus stop…for years she’s watched people pass her without a second thought.
JYOTI (Translation): In the eyes of the well-off we are wrong. They think people living in shelters are thieves and that we drink. They say bad words about us but they don’t ask us why we live here. The world should know that no other child should live like I did.
There are at least two million street kids who live like Jyoti in India. She is only one of sixty slum kid reporters at Balaknama, so they have an enormous task, trying to give a voice to those who feel ignored and invisible. Out here in the slums the search for a good story starts early.
JYOTI (Translation): Turn here, turn at this spot. In their eyes I am a girl and I am young. They say that I handle big jobs, help other kids.
Jyoti’s never been taught journalism…but weaves in and around the slums easily.
JYOTI (Translation): My specialty is mixing with the kids and talking to them at their level.
She receives a tip off about two children and finds these young kids alone guarding plastic bottles which provides the family’s only income leaving them vulnerable to thieves.
JYOTI (Translation): How many bottles did you find? How many?
CHILD (Translation): Not many. My mummy found some.
It’s winter in Delhi – and Jyoti, who knows what it means to sleep rough thinks of a good angle for her story.
JYOTI (Translation): Tell me, how do you live in the cold weather? This is such a big and open space. It becomes quite cold by 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Where do you sleep?
CHILD (Translation): There.
JYOTI (Translation): Show me.
CHILD (Translation): Over there.
JYOTI (Translation): So you sleep here. All of you? Under one blanket? You must feel very cold.
Slums have existed for centuries in India, but the latest census shows they’re growing on average by at least a million people every year. Jyoti hopes writing about these conditions will make someone pay attention.
JYOTI (Translation): What is in that bundle?
CHILD (Translation): It’s mummy’s.
JYOTI (Translation): So do you cover yourself with this?
CHILD (Translation): No, mummy wears this.
JYOTI (Translation): I see… I don’t include my own thoughts in my reports, I don’t judge. I only write down their difficulties as they tell them to me.
But staying objective can be hard for these young reporters. As a local security guard arrives, we leave, and I sense Jyoti's frustrated.
JYOTI (Translation): It’s not easy, there is a police station not far from where she sleeps, I am sure the police men and women see how kids are living. They are looking at it but they don’t do anything about it.
As a country, India economically is on the way up. Literacy rates are rising here and newspapers are now read by millions. And in amongst all these up and coming papers is Balaknama. A kind of slum dog press, it would be hard to meet an editor more passionate than 17 year-old Shambhu.
SHAMBHU (Translation): An editor needs to be patient, his attitude must be to understand the kids, not to ignore them.
This is the newspaper’s editorial meeting, held in Downtown Delhi, all the street kids are invited to pitch story ideas to Shambhu.
BHOLU (Translation): One day I found that a disabled child was abusing substances, so I said “Come with me, I will show you a better life.” I fed him and gave him clothes because his clothes were torn.
SHAMBHU (Translation): Bholu, that was a good deed that you did. Let’s give Bholu a round of applause…
SHAMBHU (Translation): As soon as I meet kids I’m very gentle with them, I want them to find the right path and take it. I don’t want them to do anything illegal. The kids are naïve so I want to help them find the right path.
Shambhu knows he has to be careful when dealing with his reporter's stories. They are first hand experiences and often confronting. Like this young reporter, who reveals a shocking allegation about police.
SHAMBHU (Translation): The kids living at the station are not safe.
Sadly, allegations of sexual abuse are not uncommon. At this newspaper, everyone knows the slums and what living there is like.
SHAMBHU (Translation): The kids who live either at the station or the street really don’t have light or easy stories.
There is not even a case study that is normal. They are all difficult, people drive past, why don’t they help? They are disconnected and don’t care about the world around them. Once they know, maybe then they might help us. But reversing the fortunes of street children's lives isn’t easy. Shambhu knows it takes time. The sun isn’t up yet, and he's already at work – but not for the paper.
SHAMBHU (Translation): I wash cars and my father works in a hotel. That is what my family lives on, otherwise we could not survive.
This isn’t the life he saw for himself, Shambhu's family are migrants. They arrived from rural India in search of work after floods destroyed their livelihood. But city life was tough.
SHAMBHU (Translation): If I go back to that time and think about it, I feel like crying. We used to sell at the station and outside, we sat at the gate of the station and sold goods. The police took money weekly and beat us if we didn’t pay. They beat us until my back was red.
The paper is a new opportunity for Shambhu to make a future for himself. It's funded by a charity, and the reporters are given a small allowance so they can go to school.
SHAMBHU (Translation): My life now is different to that life, now even if I am washing cars, people call me “reporter sir.” My life could have ended, I was as happy as if I had everything in the world.
Balaknama has lifted Shambhu and Jyoti's lives and they want it to help others, too. So I’m heading to see one way the paper's doing this, at a centre for street kids who are addicted to drugs.
SHAMBHU (Translation): Hello. This is the Nizamuddin Centre. It’s for children with addictions who live at the train station.
The government says Delhi has a staggering 70,000 children addicted to drugs. Shambhu and Jyoti are here to teach these kids to read, because literacy could bring change to their lives.
SHAMBHU (Translation): Read it.
BOY (Translation): “In our society, street children are looked down upon, but the children who live on the street also have some good qualities…”
Today, Bholu's made the news with his good deed - helping a disabled street kid. His photos in the paper – the first he's ever seen of himself.
REPORTER: Bholu, how does it feel to see your photo in the paper?
BHOLU (Translation): I’m feeling good, I want to show it to everyone. I’ve never seen my photo before.
These kids rarely feel their lives are important. Jyoti tells me that many kids escape their life by sniffing a glue used to fix bike tires and she's done more than just write about this.
JYOTI (Translation): When I was eight years old I used to get high and scavenge and beg. My life could have ended or I could have been married off or anything could have happened. If a girl lives at the station her life is bound to get spoiled. I can’t do those things now, I am educated. Balaknama has energised me. I have left the streets, I am at a good place in life.
This slum dog press may have changed lives, but simply getting the edition to print isn’t easy. Their stories need to be typed, formatted and sent, and there's one particular problem at Balaknama. There is only one member of the team who knows how to use the computer.
JYOTI (Translation): I stand and look and I wish that I too could type. She is a fast typist, it is hard to see how her fingers move.
SHANU (Translation): Balaknama has only one computer and all the work is done on that.
REPORTER: It's like the prize possession, right? It’s unique.
SHANU (Translation): Yes, unique. So we have given it a nickname, The King.
But the allegation of police abuse from one reporter in the earlier editorial meeting is weighing on Shambhu's mind.
SHAMBHU (Translation): Come on, take it seriously. Once it goes in the paper we can’t change it.
Shambhu wants to publish a special edition of the paper that speaks directly to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Taking cues from the PM's own monthly radio program, the edition will ask kids what’s in their heart.
SHAMBHU (Translation): We ask them what they want to tell the prime minister, I want to tell the PM before he makes laws for street kids, give the kids a chance to tell him what they want and promise the kids some help.
With the edition decided, Shambhu is sending the paper's up and coming reporters Chetan and Sourabah to find stories direct from street kid's hearts.
CHETAN, REPORTER (Translation): Hello friends.
KIDS (Translation): Hello.
CHETAN (Translation): How are you?
KIDS (Translation): Very well.
CHETAN (Translation): News about street kids is given very small space in a corner in the mainstream media. Even if it is a big problem it does not get coverage, even if the kids do something good, it is not reported. What is in your heart? Tell us about it. Who will go first?
This is the very first time the kids in this slum school are being asked to speak about their lives. And they’re a little shy.
CHETAN (Translation): What do you do?
GIRL (Translation): A rope act.
CHETAN (Translation): A tight-rope act?
GIRL (Translation): Yes.
CHETAN (Translation): You survive by doing tight-rope acts.
BOY (Translation): The kids here gamble and scavenge through the rubbish, they drink, get high and don’t go to school.
Just as we are about to leave, a young girl shares a story that grabs Chetan's attention.
MONICA (Translation): I have seen a few accidents.
CHETAN (Translation): People don’t follow rules and kids get hit?
MONICA (Translation): I saw one girl who had a bad accident.
CHETAN (Translation): That’s why you don’t go to school?
GIRL (Translation): She lived in that lane. She got hit.
The girl leads Chetan and Sourabah to a hectic intersection, and they learn why some kids have stopped coming to school.
CHETAN (Translation): How many kids have had an accident here?
MONICA (Translation): Six or seven.
CHETAN (Translation): Six or seven?
MONICA (Translation): Kids, adults, everyone. One girl was hit by a dump truck.
CHETAN (Translation): You mean the big trucks?
MONICA (Translation): She was split into three bits, legs were cut off. So the kids who come from where I live, they have stopped going to this school.
This is how the paper makes its mark. They may start small, but with millions of street kids across the country, local stories like these can quickly make national news. The paper’s biggest story to date exposed police forcing street kids to pick up suicide victims from train tracks. Creating such attention in the news – it sparked an investigation into the police, an impressive record for any paper let alone one made by street kids.
At last, it’s the biggest day for the paper – print day, when every reporter sees their name in ink. But today is an even bigger day for Shambhu and Jyoti.
SHAMBHU (Translation): Let’s see. Let’s see… You tell me if any news has been left out. Check Bholu’s news. Yes, it’s there.
JYOTI (Translation): There is another story too.
SHAMBHU (Translation): That’s Bholu’s news.
JYOTI (Translation): Yes, it’s there.
REPORTER: As a reporter, is this the best bit?
SHAMBHU (Translation): I feel we are finally reaping the fruits of our labour. You know when people get paid after working for a month they get a salary and this is our prize.
Shambhu will soon turn 18 and it will be Jyoti’s chance to shape the paper’s future and take over as editor.
JYOTI (Translation): At Balaknama things are run by the children, Shambhu is 17 and will be 18 next year. My name is next in line for next year.
SHAMBHU (Translation): I am teaching Jyoti so there are no mistakes, if she takes over as an editor she should know what happens here. If the print is too dark or too light, or if it is just blank, she should be able to tell them to fix the problem.
But I sense it’s going to be hard for Shambhu to say goodbye to the paper, and someone he’s grown very close to.
JYOTI (Translation): With the help of jyoti, Shambhu reached home.
SHAMBHU (Translation): No… Jyoti helped…Jyoti helped Shambhu find a new life. Right?
Shambhu and Jyoti may be street kids, but they have a sixth sense for operating in the city’s chaos. And this paper is proof India’s millennial kids are starting to read - slowly lifting many out of poverty. Leading the way are kids like Shambhu and Jyoti.
JYOTI (Translation): People need to sympathise with each other, and not think that rich and poor are different. We are human beings and we live like human beings.
nidhi dutt, anna-lena Janzen
13th June 2017