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Meet the 'street kids' in India who are running their own newspaper.

Dateline reporter Calliste Weitenberg rediscovers the power of print in India – through a young girl whose life was changed by it.

Everywhere right now it seems we are witnessing the print industry’s slow and steady demise, one newspaper’s shrinking readership forcing jobs cuts after the next.

But in India the transformative power of the humble rag is being kept alive and championed by a very unlikely set of people: street kids.

One of them is a 16-year-old girl named Jyoti.

Teen reporter Jyoti. (Image: Calliste Weitenberg.)

When we first meet in Delhi, Jyoti is already armed with a notepad and pen. The quintessential self-made reporter, she is cocky and courageous and curious. Half big sister and half spokesperson for all she meets, she’s an unlikely champion of the littlest people – those kids born without a voice in India simply because they live on the street.

At just 16, Jyoti works for a paper called Balaknama. In Hindi it means “Voice of the Children”. Funded by a local NGO, it’s run entirely for and by street kids like her.

When I meet the editorial team at the paper’s headquarters, every one of them is between the ages of 10 and 17 years old. Yet every month they print almost 10,000 copies of their latest edition out of an ageing printing press from the 1970s. A time capsule of ink and machine.

Street kids reading Balaknama in the streets of Old Delhi. (Image: Ben Emery.)
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Forget the New York Times or Vice, I think to myself, these are the people making journalism cool again.
Balaknama’s team of reporters have an inextinguishable, makeshift optimism perhaps unique to those under 18. They are all underdogs with a never-say-die spirit that quickly leaves me in awe.

Watching Jyoti at work, I notice her mumbling while taking notes during interviews. It takes me a while before I realise what she’s doing. She’s slowly sounding out consonants of words. As a street kid, she tells me, she didn’t go to school, so only now is she learning how to read and write.

Jyoti and her fellow reporters may be learning the ropes of newsgathering as they go, but their reports are anything but childish. They’re unflinching and reveal the brutal reality of growing up on India’s streets.

Dateline SBS reporter Calliste Weitenberg on location with some of Delhi’s street kids. (Image: Calliste Weitenberg.)
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When Jyoti shows me a copy of the paper, she does it not as a 16-year-old, but as a fellow reporter, my equal.
Pulling out an English edition of the paper – she proudly points out stories that have helped rescue children from child labour, exposed sexual abuse or ensured employers pay kids a salary.

Looking at one headline, Jyoti casually explains she’s banned from a nearby village, such are the level of threats she received after exposing (and ending) a child marriage.

They are stories that have tangible, life-changing impacts for their pint-sized readers. And despite a more than 10-year age gap between us, Jyoti’s young record quickly has me inspired.

It’s a feeling that hits home again when Jyoti invites me to visit her family. Just as in her reporting, she isn’t shy when describing the details of her own life.

Every night she returns to a camp beside a major bus station - sleeping in a tiny government-run shipping container for shelter with forty other people. She grapples with a poverty no one in Australia, including myself, will ever begin to know.

“When I was eight years old I used to get high and scavenge and beg,” Jyoti tells me.

Editions of Balaknama being printed in Old Delhi. (Image: Calliste Weitenberg.)

“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. The world should know the conditions in which I live.”

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Jyoti’s learnt to be tough. Her remarkable confidence is forged from a deeply personal struggle of her own. Her stories are heartfelt because each and every one of them have either been lived by her or someone she knows.

“Everything I write about is a reflection of my own life”, she confirms, “and that's difficult.”

Working as a journalist, entering the lives of others, I know it can be difficult to ever truly leave them behind. They each affect you in some small way. Watching Jyoti, I wonder how it feels trying to change so many lives in addition to her own.

A young reporter reads the latest edition of Balaknama. (Image: Ben Emery.)

But back on the hunt for a story, Jyoti has little time to dwell on the difficulty of life’s lottery. She flashes a brilliant smile and passes quickly through the crush of Delhi’s roadside slums looking for her next big scoop.

To Indian society, she may be a street kid. But on the job for Balaknama, she’s electric, small and powerful. An underdog – not a slumdog - driven by a ferocious determination to make her voice and others like it, heard.
She knows she has nothing to her name but the words she writes for herself.

Watch the full story – India’s Slumdog Press on Dateline, Tuesday 13 June at 9.30pm on SBS. The episode will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand.

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