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Home / Columns / Opinion | Is economics at the heart of the Sai Baba birthplace controversy?

Opinion | Is economics at the heart of the Sai Baba birthplace controversy?

Once developed, Pathri could emerge as a ‘competitor’ to Shirdi, something that worries the locals there.

columns Updated: Jan 20, 2020 15:02 IST
Yogesh Joshi
Yogesh Joshi
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
A view of the Sai Baba temple in Shirdi.
A view of the Sai Baba temple in Shirdi. (ANI photo)

If most things revolve around the economy, the latest row over the birthplace of the highly revered mystic, Sai Baba of Shirdi, has its roots in the same.

Earlier this week, a fresh war of words broke out after the Maharashtra government agreed to allocate Rs 100 crore for the development of Pathri town in Parbhani district of Marathwada, about 250 kilometres from Shirdi in Ahmednagar district. Pathri is perceived by many as Sai Baba’s birthplace, although there are no credible records, say historians.

The contentious reference to Pathri by the state government as the birthplace of Sai Baba was opposed by the Shirdi Sai Baba temple trust and the locals who protested with an indefinite bandh on Sunday. The bandh was called off late on Sunday evening ahead of a scheduled meeting with Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.

This isn’t the first time that a controversy has erupted over this popular saint’s birthplace. In 2005, a Shirdi resident had moved a local court to have a public event around Sai Baba cancelled. More recently, President Ram Nath Kovind’s pursuit of a development project at Pathri with the previous state government was met with voices of opposition from Shirdi.

This town with a population of 40,000 is one of the richest religious destinations in India with the Sai Baba temple at the centre of its overall economic growth. Located in Ahmednagar district, this town in Maharashtra attracts hundreds, if not thousands of devotees on any given day. It has single-handedly contributed to Shirdi’s financial growth and the locals have been the biggest beneficiaries.

Although Shirdi’s Sai Baba temple trust is controlled by the state, the circulation of money in the hands of the residents here, thanks to the constant flow of devotees from the northern and southern parts of the country, has made the locals prosperous. The opposition to Pathri’s proposed development by the state government needs to be viewed in this context.

Pathri is a small town in the backward Parbhani district of Marathwada. It is shorn of basic facilities and the locals have been demanding the development of their town as Sai Baba’s birthplace and therefore, a prominent pilgrim centre. Their hope is that the latest announcement by the state government will boost spiritual tourism here.

“The people of Shirdi fear they will lose out on tourism if Pathri is developed,” said Nationalist Congress Party’s Legislative Council member, Babajani Durrani, also a trustee of Pathri’s Sai Baba temple trust.

The fact is that tourism has contributed immensely to Shirdi’s overall growth with the town getting an airport, rail connectivity, financial institutions, hotels and other infrastructure. Once developed, Pathri could emerge as a ‘competitor’ to Shirdi and develop on similar lines, something that worries Shirdi locals, says Durrani.

Historians say there is no credible record about Sai Baba’s birthplace. “All that we know based on books written on Sai Baba is that the saint appeared in Shirdi and decided to make this town his karma bhoomi (the centre of his humanitarian work),” said Shirdi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA and former minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil.

Even as Patil rejected local economic interests as the reason for Shirdi’s opposition to Pathri, the fact is that there’s politics also at play. Most of those opposed to the Thackeray government’s decision to develop Pathari are from the BJP.