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Home / Opinion / Is economics at the heart of the Saibaba birthplace controversy?

Is economics at the heart of the Saibaba birthplace controversy?

Pilgrim tourism has contributed to Shirdi’s financial growth and the locals have been the biggest beneficiaries as thousands of devotees visit the Saibaba temple everyday.

opinion Updated: Jan 20, 2020 19:10 IST
Yogesh Joshi
Yogesh Joshi
Hindustan Times, Pune
The  Saibaba temple trust and locals in Shirdi observed a bandh  on Sunday in protest against the state government’s reference to Pathri as the birthplace of Saibaba .
The Saibaba temple trust and locals in Shirdi observed a bandh on Sunday in protest against the state government’s reference to Pathri as the birthplace of Saibaba .(Sourced)

If most things revolve around the economy, the latest row over the birthplace of the highly revered mystic, Saibaba 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 Pathari town in Parbhani district of Marathwada, about 250 kilometres from Shirdi in Ahmednagar district. Pathari is perceived by many as Saibaba’s birthplace, although there are no credible records, say historians.

The contentious reference to Pathri by the state government as the birthplace of Saibaba was opposed by the Shirdi Saibaba temple trust and the locals who protested with an indefinite bandh on Sunday. The bandh was called off late Sunday evening ahead of a scheduled meeting on Monday 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 Saibaba cancelled. More recently, President Ram Nath Kovind’s pursuit of a development project at Pathri with the previous state government evoked opposition from locals in Shirdi.

This pilgrim town with a population of 40,000 is one of the richest religious destinations in India with the Saibaba 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 Saibaba 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.

Pathari is a small town in the backward Parbhani district of Marathwada, about 250 km from Shirdi. It is shorn of basic facilities and the locals have been demanding the development of their town as Saibaba’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 Saibaba temple trust.

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 Saibaba’s birthplace. “All that we know based on books written on Saibaba 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 Pathari, 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 Shiv Sena’s former ally BJP.