Suraj Jha, 17, a blind student at Jadavpur University in Kolkata is learning to write and produce radio stories about urban environment. Here Suraj is in a drama therapy class that encourages him to communicate with peers.
By Diana Coulter
KOLKATA, India 2 January 2012 – Robin Das is a small boy who broadcasts big ideas. While he served tea in a tiny shop near Calcutta’s railway station, he formed plenty of opinions about the swirling, unsettling world around him.
For a start, he thinks tea stall customers shouldn’t beat child servers, shop owners shouldn’t steal wages and parents should help children stay in school. “These are just some of my thoughts,” says the diminutive 14-year-old, who could easily pass for a child half his age. “But now, thanks to fate, I can share them.”
Recently, Robin was chosen from a group of railway-area kids to join a radio programme in Calcutta supported by UNICEF that puts disadvantaged children behind the microphone for a half-hour show called ‘Children’s Journey’, or Shishu Tirtha in their native Bengali.
Produced from three radio studios at the city’s prestigious Jadavpur University, the show regularly airs news reports and interviews prepared each week by about 30 children who come from nearby slums and neighbourhoods, government schools and most recently, a boys’ academy for the blind.
Young reporters train peers
Thoughtful and outgoing, it is clear Robin is determined to make the most of his opportunity. Until recently, he had only planned to keep working so his younger sister, Sadhana, 11, could afford to stay in school. For three years now, he’s helped support his family of six, despite his own desire for an education.
“I told my parents that I would only work if some of my money could be given for Sadhana,” he explains. Already, his mother and other sisters work as maids, including the six-year-old, he says. Now, Robin intends to tackle the topic of child labour in his first reports.
Another new recruit, 17-year-old Suraj Jha plans to focus on stereotypes faced by those, like him, who are visually impaired. “People are always very quick to say things to us like: Oh, you are blind so you must sing very well,” says Suraj, who attends a city academy for boys. “I want to point out that we have many talents just like anyone.”
To do this, Suraj will get radio training from university staff, programme supervisors and an earlier batch of children. After just a year, the three girls and one boy who will help teach him are already seasoned radio journalists or ‘RJ’s’, as they like to be called.
Earlier in the day, they were out on nearby streets interviewing people for a series of upcoming stories. Holding a tiny white recorder, they each examined a different aspect of traffic and noise pollution.
Right to be heard
Nabanita Das, 13, suggested a story about students dodging a dangerous fleet of buses parked near a school. Ipshita Baidya, 13, wanted to look at whether roadside food stalls were contaminated by passing traffic. Kannyasree Das, 13, proposed a look at ‘no horn zones’ outside schools. And their male team member, Rajatava Haldar, also 13, wondered if blaring music from street stalls disturbed students.
Working as a team, they easily approached a steady stream of strangers, looking for key interviews for each story. “Before, I always thought you had to be grownup and finished all your studies to be part of a radio programme, but now I have the confidence and can easily do the job,” says Nabanita, as she climbs into a parked bus to interview the startled driver.
Emerging moments later, she excitedly tells her friends, “Oh, that was great! The driver agrees this is a serious issue because the road is under construction and there’s very little space to maneuver, so the safety of students can be a real problem.”
Looking on, programme supervisor Anindita Roy says adults are often sceptical when the young reporters first approach them. “That’s exactly the issue, really, because many adults don’t take children seriously, and that’s why they need to be reporters, because they have the right to be heard,” says Roy.
Back at the radio studio, the children agree child labour must be featured in another show. “It’s never difficult to find another topic,” says Rajatava with a shrug. “We just talk about issues in our own lives.”