Out of a dark and dank basement of New Delhi’s Gautam Nagar neighborhood, composed of former rag pickers, street entertainers, and upsettingly young drug addicts, operate 16 catalysts for change. These 16 visionaries are slowly but surely altering the way street children are often perceived. No longer propagated as drab, scraggly, and doomed, these children have dedicated their daily lives to highlighting and heightening Balaknama—the “voice of children”—as reporters of the world’s first newspaper written by and for street children.

First imagined by CHETNA and Badhte Kadam, Balaknama is dubbed “the world’s most remarkable newspaper.” CHETNA, founded in March 2002, is a grassroots non-governmental organization working to empower street and working children across New Delhi and neighboring states. CHETNA, which means creating awareness in Hindi, doubles as an acronym for “Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action.” With a team of experienced social workers, of which some are former street and working children themselves, and through partnering with Badhte Kadam, a unique federation of the street and working children, CHETNA engages in a cycle of breaking the cycle.

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Sanjay Gupta, founding director of CHETNA, details the organization’s approach: direct action with children, sensitizing stakeholders to a better understanding of the children’s plight, and advocacy to positively impact policy measures. Through devising a range of programs and activities, the organization hopes to reinstate the rights of the child, fortify livelihood, and eradicate poverty.

Street children are among the most marginalized in society, vulnerable to child labor, child trafficking, sexual, physical, and mental abuse, extreme poverty, as well as homelessness. In 2011, the Census of India found that 23.8 million children under 18 years of age were involved in child labor. Of these children, 10.1 million were under the age of 14. Furthermore, children under 18 made up 5 percent of the country’s total workforce. As a result, CHETNA aligns with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by focusing on four unalienable tenants: survival (i.e. through healthcare, adequate nutrition, and recognition of name and nationality); development (i.e. through education, care, leisure, recreation, and cultural activities); protection (i.e. from exploitation, abuse, and neglect); and participation (i.e. freedom of expression, religion, and thought, and access to information).

CHETNA’s team is staffed across the city at hubs, like transit points such as railway stations and bus stops, slum areas, and busy markets, where street and working children are most commonly found. Upon identification, CHETNA creates open contact points, using public spaces, where about 30-50 kids can meet daily for programmatic activities. Each contact point selects child leaders and newspaper reporters to sustain the Badhte Kadam federation.

“This is a transition phase…CHETNA behaves as parental support paternal that any child would need. We guide them, tell them what is good and what is not, take care of their small financial needs, and basically engage them,” Gupta said. “It’s like a self-help group—how to protect each other, what numbers to call in an emergency, how to negotiate with strangers, what to do if someone pushes you through substance abuse. This takes time.”

Since its inception, also in 2002, Badhte Kadam—meaning stepping forward in Hindi—has established a collective voice of over 10,000 members across seven districts in North India. Through group meetings, these child members design the relevant empowerment programming on their own. They are appointed to leadership roles and preside over contact points to uncover the problems of other street children. When previous child leaders reach 18 years of age, Badhte Kadam does not simply disengage, but appoints them as advisors.

The individual stories of these children comprise the bi-monthly, eight-page tabloid that is Balaknama, delving into their battles with sexual abuse, child labor, drugs, and police brutality with sprinkles of hope along the way. Several baatooni or boli reporters, children who have a knack for reporting but may be illiterate, can instead dictate their stories to the regular staff. The average reporter is aged 14. Most live in slums and shanties, studying through the concept of open school and simultaneously working to support their families. The average reporter is aged 14. Most live in slums and shanties, studying through the concept of open school and simultaneously working to support their families.

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I had the privilege of meeting three such bright and bold visionaries: Jyoti (16), Chandni (18), and Shanno (19).

*Interviews originally conducted in Hindi.

Q: How and why did you come to CHETNA?

Jyoti: I used to rag pick and beg on the streets. Then I met the older brothers and sisters at CHETNA and they told me they run a center near Nizamuddin Railway Station. At first, I was cautious. I was afraid that these people would capture and take me away, that they would sell me or marry me off. I had all of these fears instilled in me because, where I begged, my friends would warn me not to go to CHETNA’s center. After that, [CHETNA] spent some time with me and showed my mother and father the center. My favorite thing at the center was dance. At that time, I was also involved in doing drugs and drinking alcohol. The reason why I started [abusing substances] was because my father had tuberculosis. My mother and father were not around; they left me to go to Jaipur to get medications. So I learned nasha (intoxication) while living alone. But I used to learn a lot at the center. [CHETNA] took me to Dehradun for a four-day leadership training. They taught me that I can help myself and also help other kids. After coming home, I became the leader of my center. Teaching kids, telling kids what is bad and good, I was awakened after going to the training. I then became the Badhte Kadam leader of the South Delhi district. My photo was published in Balaknama. It made me so happy that, at least in some newspaper, my photo and story were published. I would then report for Balaknama, write about other children’s stories, and appoint other reporters for each checkpoint—boli  (illiterate) or likhi (literate). Today, I am the national secretary of Badhte Kadam and I work with 10,000 kids.

Shanno: The first time I went, the CHETNA contact point was run in a cemetery. I am a Muslim, so I used to lie to my family and go, but would also be beaten when they found out. People would gossip, “This girl has grown up and is sitting in the cemetery with other boys, what is she doing with those boys?” Still, I used to go. It was an open place where children could study. My father had left us and was an alcoholic, so I had to quit school in order to work and support my family. I used to work night and day; I would only go home in the afternoon to eat. I used to have 2-3 diaries in which I wrote all my feelings and thoughts since I left school and started work. I also wrote about my visits to the contact point in the cemetery. When my mother found them, she sold them. The day my diaries were sold, I was so upset that my private feelings were gone. But I always had the desire to write and was then able to continue with Balaknama.

Q: Can you tell me more about Badhte Kadam and Balaknama? 

Shanno: Badhte Kadam’s mission is first to give an identity to street children, second to give them respectful and respectable lives, and third to have them participate in government-level meetings to convey the problems and demand the needs of other street children. Our main goal is that we give children all the education necessary for them to help themselves and speak up themselves. Balaknama also came out of this vision when the children decided to come out with a newspaper composed of their own stories and problems. Balaknama’s mission is to have the voice of every child reach every corner—even to the government level. Some children may not have the ability or knowledge to adequately speak up in a crowd of people, but this way they can write whatever is in their mind. We created a staff that receives training on writing and child rights. Our first issue came out in 2003. Since 2015, the paper is also translated into English. It takes one week to translate one story, because we want to preserve the original meaning from Hindi. When children use drugs and alcohol, they start to lose sight of their own worth and self-respect. But when they have become reporters for Balaknama or when a story about them has been published, their self-worth has been raised and they have slowly started to leave substances behind. Like Jyoti, I have seen many such children. I was one myself. We have all done many types of work. Now, I am the advisor of Balaknama and, through open school, I am doing my first year of my bachelor’s in social work (BSW). We cannot go to school regularly, but have at least mustered the courage, through CHETNA, to leave behind our street work and study. Now other children learn by seeing our examples.

Q: Who usually reads Balaknama? 

Shanno: When an issue is printed, it is first distributed among street children and our members. We read it to those who cannot read. We then reach out to all the NGOs working in support of children and to embassies. They may not know about our problems because they work in their offices all day. Even when I was working on the streets, I thought I was the only kid facing those problems. I did not know that the same problems affected other children. We want to educate people on how to treat street and working children—not to slap, threaten, or curse them when they come to beg. Instead, to have people speak to street and working children about their situations, why they work, and how they got there.

Q: As girls, what do you think CHETNA has given you? What do you believe street and working girls specifically need?

Jyoti: I used to think that there was nothing for us. I used to live at the railway station and liked it, because I did not think I could go anywhere else or give up begging. That was a very bad place, the people there, the bad things they said, teasing girls, greed for money. Yet I used to love all of this when I lived there. The biggest change in me was that I stopped using substances. Then I gave up begging. Had I remained who I was when living at the station, by now someone would have killed me or sold me at this age. The bad women and girls used to do business (prostitution). Now I talk to other girls like me so that they, too, can leave all these things behind.

Shanno: Differences between boys and girls do not exist here at CHETNA. It is very progressive.

Chandni is Balaknama’s 18-year-old editor-in-chief. At the age of four, when her family moved to New Delhi from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, Chandni began performing on the streets with her father as a dancer, singer, and tight-rope walker. When her father died of a stroke in 2008, 11-year-old Chandni turned towards selling flowers in the red light district, rag picking, and begging in order to assist with family finances. Upon meeting volunteers from CHETNA in 2010, Chandni was enrolled in an open school program while receiving journalistic training.

Chandni: The first story about me was published in Balaknama in 2010. Afterward, I joined Balaknama as a leader of 30 kids as a contact point before I became a reporter. I was doing well—finding out children’s problems and issues, helping them, and writing about them. This way, I got the opportunity to be Badhte Kadam’s national secretary, and at the same time, Balaknama’s editor. I train the kids and, through Balaknama, work on reaching government officials with their issues. My life has completely changed after coming to CHETNA. People never used to like looking at me, they would be disgusted, and now a girl like me has become the editor of a newspaper. Now people come from far to meet me. This is a big thing for me and for other street kids like me. I am advancing in my life. This is like a dream come true.

Since becoming Balaknama’s editor in 2014, Chandni has seen the paper’s circulation increased from 4,000 to 5,500 copies. Furthermore, it was Chandni’s efforts that resulted in commissioning the paper’s new design, going from four to eight pages. She is now studying for her class 10 examination and was recently invited to speak at a TEDx event in Bangalore.

Balaknama has achieved pan-world recognition, such as from the United Kingdom, United States, France, Singapore, and across South Asia. The children involved are truly inspiring, having used the power of the pen to not only brighten their own ill-fated circumstances but to do the same for their counterparts. Yet Gupta says, “We have many admirers but few supporters. We need a balance. We are severely lacking funding. The paper costs 2 rupees only, but nobody buys it. We would like for this to be accepted as mainstream media…We should have the heart for street children, passionate thinking. Education will be useful, of course, but only if the right attitude is in place.”

To learn more about CHETNA and its initiatives, visit www.chetnango.org.