India's top court on Monday ordered circuses to stop employing children and instructed the government to rescue and rehabilitate those currently working for the shows.
India's Child Labor Act bans employment of children younger than 14, but circuses were exempt until six months ago when the government amended the law. Circus owners, however, have largely ignored the law, and now the Supreme Court is mandating that it be enforced.
India remains home to the greatest number of child laborers in the world despite efforts by successive governments to address the problem through compulsory education and anti-poverty programs.
Activists say the number of children working in circuses in India could be in the thousands. They often perform some of the most dangerous stunts, including on trapezes or high-wires and frequently without safety nets.
The court ruled on a petition from the Indian group, the Save Childhood Movement, filed in 2006 after the group studied children in circuses and found such employment often led to child trafficking.
The study revealed that children were ill-treated, poorly paid and suffered abuse, including sexual abuse, from circus owners or managers.
"A circus company would change its name and since they move from place to place, parents of children often couldn't trace their children. People were operating child trafficking rings under the garb of a circus," Bhuvan Ribhu, a lawyer working for the group, said.
Ribhu said the court directed the government to conduct raids on circuses to rescue children and come up with a rehabilitation plan for them.
The court noted that the employment of children under 14 years of age was also a violation of their right to education, which was recently guaranteed by law.
Children who were rescued from circuses were to be handed over to their parents, the court ruled. If the parents were unable to take them back, the child welfare department has to make arrangements for their care and education.
Judge Dalveer Bhandari directed the government to file a response within 10 weeks giving details of the actions taken to enforce the law.