People sleeping on pavements and footpaths even after 64 years of independence is a matter of concern, the Supreme Court said on Monday while asking States to comply with its order to provide roofs to the homeless facing threat to their lives while sleeping in open and intense cold.

Quoting Article 21 of the Constitution, which deals with the fundamental right of life and liberty, the apex court said the “right to shelter” is also right to life and the authorities, particularly in northern states where the winter is likely to continue till March, must gear up “to preserve and protect” the lives of the people of weaker sections and destitute.

“We direct the authorities, particularly in northern states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to provide at least temporary night shelters to preserve and protect the lives of homeless people in consonance with the philosophy of the Constitution under Article 21,” a bench of justices Dalveer Bhandari and Dipak Misra said.

The court, which asked the states to comply with its order within three weeks, said “nothing is more important for states than to protect and preserve lives of the homeless people”. “Threat to life is perceivable in severe cold and states must comply with all its obligations under Article 21 by providing shelter to the homeless people,” the bench said.

It asked the authorities in states like Maharashtra and West Bengal, which are lagging behind the apex court’s deadline to erect temporary and permanent structure as night shelters, to discuss the issue at the highest level, including their chief ministers.

“For a civilised society, people sleeping on pavements and footpaths even after 64 years of independence is a matter of concern,” the bench said while dealing with the steps taken by Maharashtra government.

The bench expressed its displeasure over the tardy progress made by West Bengal government in providing night shelters for the homeless and asked the state authorities to take up the matter with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

“You have a very sensitive chief minister. What are you doing? You take it up with the chief minister,” the bench said when the counsel for West Bengal submitted that out of the requisite 134 night shelters, only six were operational.

The court expressed satisfaction that Madhya Pradesh government had provided all facilities in 38 night shelters and around 61 were under construction.

The court appreciated state government’s counsel for visiting the state and placing an affidavit, annexed with photographs of night shelters made operational with all facilities in various districts of the state.

The court posted the matter for further hearing on February 27, while directing a joint inspection of the night shelters in various states by civil society members and court-appointed commissioners within two weeks.

The court had during the last hearing on January 16 asked the authorities to carry out its order in “letter and spirit” to “preserve and protect” the lives of homeless people.

The bench had, in an earlier hearing, said it cannot permit its own children to die in winter.

The NGO, Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties’ (PUCL), had submitted there are night shelters which had “near zero occupancy.”

The apex court is monitoring the implementation of its 2009 order for providing night shelters to the homeless across the country and has appointed court commissioners to inspect the progress in building and equipping them properly.

A recent report submitted to the court said “in almost all States, homeless persons continue to sleep in the open and lead a life of exclusion and destitution. Most of the state governments continue to show poor compliance of the directions of the Supreme Court.”

As Jammu and Kashmir government on Tuesday told the court that there are no homeless people in the state, it was told to file an affidavit in this regard.

Himachal Pradesh too had told the court that “there were no homeless persons” there and the court had recorded the undertaking.

The court had also directed the states to ensure that the night shelters were equipped with basic facilities like potable water, separate toilets for men and women, bedding, and medical facilities in the existing night shelters.

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