Shambhu’s days start early.
At 6 a.m., he leaves his house in a slum in western New Delhi and heads to a more affluent area where he washes cars for three hours, for which he earns about $50 a month.
After a morning of work, he heads to a learning center to study for a few hours. Most 17-year-olds would probably be at school all day, but circumstances have dictated otherwise for Shambhu, who goes by only one name.
He is from Biraul, a village in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. When he was 9, he moved to the capital to help his father serve cucumbers.
In Biraul, Shambhu attended a government school, but “it was useless, we didn’t learn anything,” he said.
It wasn’t until he began going to the learning center in Delhi that he learned to read and write.
He also discovered what has become a major passion of his – journalism. Through the learning center, he heard about Balaknama, a newspaper run by street children.
Balaknama means “voice of the children” in Hindi. Shambhu, a lanky, bright-eyed teenager, is its editor.
“Earlier the people here just knew me as ‘Shambhu the boy who washes my car’ but since they learned about Balaknama, the lady who lives here, the doctor who lives above, they all call me ‘editor sir’,” he told CNN in the newspaper’s offices.
“Every month, when we publish a new edition of the newspaper, I distribute it to all the houses here and a lot of people also donate money.”
The paper is priced at a nominal 5 rupees, less than 10 cents, but is mainly given out for free at police stations and through NGOs working with street children.
Circulation stands at about 8,000, the bulk of which is the Hindi edition, according to Sanjay Gupta, director of Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action (CHETNA), an NGO set up in 2002 that funds the newspaper.
“When we first started Balaknama, CHETNA would offer guidance as well as financial support, but now it is run independently by the children. Today, we are just the mentor organization, we provide encouragement, funding and our team translates the Hindi edition into English,” said Gupta.
In recent months, they have also started publishing articles to over 5,000 readers via WhatsApp and email.
According to a 2011 survey by Save the Children, there are more than 50,000 street children living in Delhi.
Half of them are illiterate, while a staggering 87% are forced to earn a living working as rag pickers and street vendors or by begging.
An estimated 50% of street children have suffered verbal, physical or sexual abuse, the survey found.
Balaknama is intended to raise awareness of issues faced by street and working children. Like Shambhu, many of the core team of nine reporters had barely gone to school before joining the newspaper.
“The stories are chosen based on how much awareness they raise over the issues the kids face,” Shambhu said.
One such recent story is the case of children forced to work in the production and supply of bootleg liquor. “They’re 10 to 15 years old and they’re drinking themselves and becoming alcoholics,” he said. “So I feel it’s our duty to talk about this and turn it into a social cause.”
At a recent editorial meeting in a shabby basement, Shambhu held court as three reporters vied for attention.
“Sometimes we argue during the meetings because everyone wants to get their story on the front page. But I have to look at how they got the story and whether it’s important enough to be the first thing that people see,” he told CNN afterward.
Shambhu has been editor for about a year. He joined the paper at age 10 as a “baatuni” reporter, working his way up ever since.
“Baatuni” reporters are often young children unable to write their own stories but able to find leads and do basic news gathering.
Reporters Deepak, Joti and Chetan have pasts similar to their editor’s.
Deepak, 17, went to school until he was 11, but was forced to leave and start working when his father became sick.
Joti, also 17, never went to school. She used to live at Delhi’s Nizammudin station, where she worked as a beggar, a rag picker and occasionally a thief. During this time she became addicted to drugs and sniffing glue.
Since coming to Balaknama aged nine, her life has changed. She now lives in a shanty home with her family and is going to school.
Chetan, 16, joined Balaknama when he was eight. Before that, he used to work on construction sites moving bricks. Now he’s in charge of drawing up the next edition’s layout.
10 million child laborers
Last year, India amended its child labor law making it illegal to employ a child under the age of 14 except where they help their family.
The move was criticized by many, including UNICEF, for not going far enough to help the country’s estimated 10 million child laborers.
Education has been key to improving the lives of Balaknama’s reporters.
“The aim of our work is to empower these children through education,” said CHETNA’s Gupta.
Shanno, a 22-year-old former editor who currently serves as an adviser, said “a lot of us went to school for a while but had to leave because we had to work to help our families. But that changed through Balaknama and we can make a difference now.”
The paper’s stories can have impact beyond its immediate readership. A story about children forced by police to clean up the remains of people who fell on train tracks was picked up by national news outlets and forced a response from the government.
‘My life would have gone to waste’
Be it through their stories or their plans for the future, Shambhu and his team want to help others like them.
Shambhu said he wants to continue working in journalism. “If I hadn’t come across Balaknama, my life would have gone to waste. Maybe I’d be working in a restaurant or still be selling cucumbers. Everything I am today is because of Balaknama. It changed my life,” he said.
“People in this country look at kids who are working and living on the streets with disgust. They see us as without a future. I want this to stop.”
Street children, he said, are “just trying to find an opportunity that few are willing to give.”