The court edict followed a petition lodged by a children’s rights group that has lobbied for full implementation of Indian child labour laws, which are regularly flouted by circuses.
Children are often trained to perform high-wire acrobatic acts, juggling stunts and other attractions for audiences in India, where circus companies move from town to town throughout the year.
“The court has ordered the government to rescue all children below 14 years of age and also instructed them to formulate a rehabilitation policy for the minors,” said Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer for the Save the Childhood Movement, which brought the case.
The court order said all children rescued from circuses should live with their parents and that the government should provide care and education if their parents are unable to look after them.
India passed a law nearly 25 years ago banning children under 14 from working in hazardous industries such as fireworks manufacture, and labour legislation has since been extended to cover most employment sectors.
The laws were amended in 2006 to tackle widespread abuse of the rules, but activists say courts still need to crack down on child labour, which is often rife in restaurants, shops, farms and on building sites.
Circus professionals criticised the court ruling, saying training performers from a young age is crucial to the development of specialist skills.
They point to European circuses that are allowed to sign up children if one parent accompanies them and full education is provided.
“One can only perform acrobatics if rigorous training is imparted at an early age. Children are needed for the job and you cannot train adults for it,” said NV Chandran, a trainer at the Gujarat-based Gemini Circus.
Circuses have suffered a drop in popularity in India as televisions, cinemas and video players have spread into rural areas.