Shanno Khan began working in the pant hook-making industry when she turned 13, sometimes even working through the night. Her father is an alcoholic who rarely earned and mostly stayed away. Shanno loved learning and studied at a local government school till Class V. “But I had to drop off due to work. I have four younger siblings and they would have starved without my income,” she says.
Today, Shanno is the main adviser and overseer of Balaknama, frequently christened the ‘world’s most unique newspaper.’ Balaknama is a newspaper produced by the street children of Delhi about the lives they lead and the issues that affect them. Says Chandni, Editor-in-Chief of the paper, “No one gets to know about us, how we live and in what conditions. The children whose stories get published in the newspaper-their own world is full of darkness.”
Teach a man to fish, or so goes the proverb. Balaknama doesn’t rescue the children from the horrific reality of their lives. But it empowers them to change that reality, gradual though that change may be. In July 2002 NGO Chetna, which works for the betterment of the lives of street kids, gathered together 35 such children for a workshop. During the workshop the children detailed the vicious physical, mental and sexual abuse that they have had to face regularly and how there is no outlet to give voice to their sufferings. Under the aegis of Chetna, these 35 kids formed a federation of street and slum children in Delhi and named it Badhte Kadam. Balaknama, first produced in 2003, is Badhte Kadam’s biggest achievement.
An unlikely leader
Shanno became Balaknama’s leader quite by accident. She recounts, “While coming home for lunch I used to see children my age attending open classes at a cemetery and it always provoked me to go and sit in those classes. Hailing from a conservative Muslim family, I was forbidden from going to the cemetery. I would sneak in and attend those classes whenever I could and would bear severe beatings whenever I got caught. I got to know for the first time that there are kids out there whose lives are worse than mine. Yet they were creating hope and change for themselves by running their own newspaper.” She attended these classes illicitly whenever she could where she was trained in writing and news gathering. Eventually, she rose through the ranks of the federation and today oversees the production of the world’s most unique newspaper.
World’s most unique newspaper
Balaknama is the world’s first and only newspaper run by and for street children. It is dark, gritty and a starkly true representation of what life is like for a huge section of children in this country. Take for example a Balaknama reporter interviewing a street kid who opens up about being a drug addict. The conversation goes:
‘Do you take drugs?’
‘The mind goes numb due to taking drugs.’
Balaknama is funded by Chetna and through donations that come its way. Its editors and reporters are all street and working children. Illiteracy is a big menace among street kids and child labourers. But these enterprising children divided the work among them such that it didn’t pose a problem. Balaknama has two types of reporters. Those who are illiterate are called vocal reporters. They go and collect news from the ground. The literate ones write up the news, draft the columns and help craft the layout of the paper.
Shanno says, “Balaknama prints heroic stories of the street children, their laws and rights and the information that can help other needy children. It is printed in Dariyaganj and distributed to the children, stakeholders and subscribers all over the country.”
Presently, there are 16 writers and 70 vocal reporters in the Balaknama team. All these children come from the streets of various districts such as Noida, Delhi, Jhansi, Gwalior, and Agra. When not being journalists, these children are mainly rag-pickers who earn by selling plastic garbage and bottles.
Writing their way to a better world
The physical hardships induced by poverty are backbreaking, but the psychological havoc it wreaks that is the deadliest. What sociologists term the culture of poverty refers to the vicious cycle that its victims are trapped in; one where they can see no way out. The children of Balaknama endure brutal poverty, but their newspaper empowers them to imagine a better world for themselves.
Shanno, who is barely an adult herself, says, “Balaknama has enhanced the self-confidence and self-esteem of these children with substance abuse history who present their works and writings via the newspaper. When the next day they see themselves in the pages of Balaknama, they get so excited to present this small world of theirs. They think positively about themselves. They feel that if they can get these achievements in the drastic conditions in which they survive, then what will happen when they get out of this drug addiction and become a gentleman or a lady getting respect all around.”
The kids have grand plans for the future of Balaknama. Lack of funds may have reined them in but has not dimmed their hope. Shanno says, “Our plans range from enhancing its marketing to making it a registered newspaper distributed all over the nation. We are also thinking of booking this newspaper into school libraries so that maximum number of people can read about the magical resilience of the children behind it.”
Shanno is confident that the small team of mini heroes at Balaknama are going to change the world. We cannot help but agree.