Law · Public Policy · Society

The Plight of the Indian Circus Industry

The Indian Circus Industry dates back to well over a century and even before that such performances were conducted in various parts of the country. In the 1990’s there were 300 different circuses performing in India. But today the number has been reduced to an astonishing fraction numbering fewer than 30 circuses in the whole of India. This tragic situation is not endemic to India alone as circus industries throughout the world struggle to compete with the modern entertainment industries which are far more accessible and mobile, thanks to the ever evolving technological advancements. Other reasons include the lack of interest among the new generation, ever increasing affluent middle class, etc. However, the Indian circus has been hit worse than those of other countries because of two major judgments of the Supreme Court over the last two decades. The first one in 2001 imposing a blanket ban on the use of wild animals in circuses and the second one in 2011 prohibiting children below the age of 18 from being employed in circuses. Earlier one of the star attractions of any circus used to be the wild, exotic and often dangerous animals exhibited and used in performances. Audiences used to gape in amazement as performers fearlessly performed death defying acts with wild and ferocious beasts such as lions, tigers, panthers and bears. However, various animal welfare organizations such as People for Animals, RSPCA, etc put forth a series of allegations with solid evidence in support of their contention that animals used in circuses were treated inhumanely and trained under brutal conditions. Trainers were accused and in many cases proven guilty of using techniques such as starvation, infliction of pain and fear to force animals into subjugation. The Circus industry views these judgments as violative of their fundamental rights especially Article 19(g) which safeguards peoples fundamental right to conduct business and earn a livelihood. But the Court ruled that Art 19(g) like other fundamental rights was subject to reasonable restrictions and was not granted to anyone in an absolute sense. Engaging child artistes as performers and using wild animals were against public policy and popular sentiment as well as contradictory to certain Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution and hence the bans were reasonable and justified.

But the net result of these two judgments is that the livelihoods of thousands of circus performers have been affected.  Amidst all the criticism about the circus industry, it is pertinent to note that the circus plays a vital role in our society by providing employment opportunities to certain sections of the society who have been shunned due to genetic deformities and have no alternative means of earning a livelihood. It also provides employment to talented and skilled performers who are uneducated. Hence, it helps the economy by reducing poverty and unemployment. The skills required to perform in a circus are often handed down from parents to children in the industry and most of these performers are uneducated and do not have any other means to earn a living. If the circus dies, they will have no other option but to resort to manual labour. Also, a great deal of Indian culture and traditional knowledge and skill will be lost if the Circus industry shuts down. The few circuses which remain standing today are crippled by the steady drop in audience and the steep inflation. They are caught in a vicious cycle where they cannot increase ticket rates fearing an even further drop in sales, but at the same time they are unable to cope with the gargantuan costs of running a circus.

Analysis of the rippling effects of the Judgments

In 2011, a writ petition filed by Bachpana Bachao Andolan (BBA), an NGO promoting child rights and welfare before the Supreme Court of India sought the imposition of a ban on children working in Indian circuses. The Apex Court decided in favour of the petitioner and imposed a ban on children below the age of 18 from being employed in circuses in India citing various humanitarian and ethical reasons inter alia.

In 2001, the Supreme Court dismissed a Special Leave Petition and upheld the decision of the Kerala High Court regarding the validity of Section 22 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 which prohibited the exhibition and training of certain wild animals, namely bears, monkeys, lions, tigers and panthers in order to conform to the legislative intent behind the Act being “to prevent the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering on animals and for that purpose to amend the law relating to the prevention of cruelty to animals”. Basically it prohibited Indian circuses from using the above mentioned animals for exhibition or training purposes. Today, a handful of acts remain involving the use of animals such as horses, dogs, birds, and elephants. Major attractions such as big cats, hippopotamuses, monkeys, bears and other exotic animals are a thing of the past. Most circus owners maintain that elephants are the only major attraction these days. Over the last few years, several animal welfare activists throughout the nation have been lobbying for an amendment of Section 22 to also include elephants within the ambit of wild animals. If they do succeed, it would amount to a coup de grace for all Indian circuses as these great pachyderms are probably the only reason why the handful of circuses still remain standing today, albeit crippled. Elephants are the “star attraction” in today’s circuses as they are the responsible for the maximum amount of revenue generated from ticket sales. If the elephants become extinct from the big top, then it will spell certain doom for a circus. Economic considerations aside, it seems arbitrary that elephants should be prohibited from being used in circuses for training and exhibition purposes while they are allowed to be used in similar ways for religious purposes in several temples throughout India especially in South India where wild elephants are specially trained and on some occasions even abused during the process. These elephants are used in religious processions and made to undergo intense training which is quite similar to what circus elephants are subjected to. However, demands for prohibition of this practice are quite lukewarm in contrast to the circus elephant’s issue. Hence, if the Government does amend Section 22, it must do so in a just and non- arbitrary fashion.

The Indian Circus industry has been brutally affected by the cumulative effect of these two landmark decisions among several other similar judgments passed by various courts in the country. Wild and exotic animals were undoubtedly the “star attraction” of any circus, and it is no surprise that the number of circus enthusiasts has sharply declined after 2001 leading to a collapse of 90% of circus companies in the country.

While the 2011 judgment is sound on grounds of human rights and protection of fundamental rights and other moral and ethical considerations, it is somewhat erred in understanding the practical aspects of the circus industry. Circus performers are not the same as those engaged in other professions, comparing trained and talented child artistes in circuses with those children engaged in unskilled manual labour or child labour seems a tad bit non- pragmatic because unlike other professions performing in a circus requires intense physical and mental grooming from a tender age when the human body is able to adapt most easily to the complicated acrobatics and other physical activities which are performed in a circus. A person cannot learn complex acrobatics as required in a circus after he or she becomes an adult because the human body cannot adapt itself so easily. Hence, several artistes in circuses need to undergo training from childhood in order to be competent. Of course, malpractices and atrocities which child performers are subjected to such as mistreatment, sexual abuse, deprivation of basic amenities etc. need to be strictly prohibited and criminalized but the mandate on blanket ban on children below the age of 18 from being employed in circuses needs to be reassessed in light of the practical challenges posed by the industry. In addition, there needs to be specific provisions in the legislations pertaining to child welfare regarding special protection for children employed in circuses instead of placing them in the general category of children unlawfully employed in other hazardous professions which safeguards their rights but also allows them the liberty to engage in performing in circuses subject to reasonable restrictions.

In conclusion, though I wholeheartedly agree with the judgments of the Apex Court in essence, it is my opinion that the solution to the problem lies in framing new laws which will harmoniously resolve the clash between human and animal rights with the socio- economic considerations because the show must go on!

About the Author

Srinivas RamanSrinivas Raman is an undergraduate law student from National Law University, Jodhpur. He is interested in various areas of law and public policy and is keen on legal research and legal writing. He has previously interned at various organizations including NGO’s and law firms and is currently interning as a researcher at Alexis Insights.

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