July 14, 2024

Six years after the death of Sathya Sai Baba, devotees still believe he is a living God or BhagwanPuttaparthi, once a small, arid village in Anantapur district, remains in a state of mourning, perhaps not so much over the death of the local demigod Sai Baba, but over the knock-on effects his passing has had on the economy and trade, and the loss of recognition and pride for Puttaparthi in the country. “Our town is like Tirumala without Lord Balaji,” says Mahabaleshwar Gupta, a local hotelier in Puttaparthi.

Participating in Sai Baba’s 92nd birthday celebrations at Prashanti Nilayam in Puttaparthi on November 23, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu spoke about the need to revive institutions such as universities, water works, hospitals and meditation centres established by Sathya Sai Baba in India and abroad. Naidu urged devotees to keep burning the “flame of universal brotherhood and service to humanity” advocated by the godman.

Death of a Town

After Sai Baba died after a long illness on 24 April 2011, Puttaparthi not only lost its spiritual appeal and economic focus, but also its VVIP attention. The Ministry of Civil Aviation cancelled all flights to Puttaparthi and closed Sri Sathya Sai Airport, built for Sai Baba by the L&T Group in 1990. Only charter flights carrying VVIP visitors with special permission are allowed to land there.

During his lifetime, between 25,000 and 30,000 foreign devotees and hundreds of thousands of Indian devotees visited him every year. Ashram People come to pay homage to him in Puttaparthi, and special conferences and rallies are held on his birthdays. However, controversies after his death and a struggle for control between the trust and his family have led to a decline in the number of devotees. Over 3,000-4,000 foreigners and several thousand Indians visit the temple. Ashram One year later.

The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, which comprises of Sai Baba’s close associates, is currently Ashram However, with the dwindling political visits and media attention, it fell into neglect. Now, Prashanti Nilayam and its guest house are caterers for political and corporate events rather than a place to accommodate devotees. In July 2015, when Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi visited Anantapur district for a walking meet, he used Prashanti Nilayam to meet local legislators and address the media. TDP (Telugu Desam Party) and YSRC (YSR Congress) leaders also use the spacious guest house built by Sai Baba to host Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers and industry tycoons.

Construction activity and property registrations have also declined in Puttaparthi since 2011. From Rs 56 crore in the year to March 2011, it fell to Rs 29 crore in 2012-13 and just Rs 4.2 crore in 2016, said the deputy registrar of properties in Bukkapatnam. Around 800 flats lie vacant and waiting for buyers, and some investors have backed out of flats they had paid pre-payments for in Puttaparthi.

A blow to business

Gone are the days when huge convoys of camper vans and buses dotted the outskirts of Puttaparthi, filling miles of open fields. A gram panchayat with a population of less than 10,000, the Andhra Pradesh government elevated it to a municipality in the 1970s and set up PUDA (Puttaparthi Urban Development Authority) in 1990 to convert the open land for 31 miles around the town into residential and commercial areas.

With Sai Baba gone, most builders, contractors, traders and hoteliers are worried about the drop in visitor numbers. Most of the 300-plus Kashmiri traders of handicrafts and arts and crafts, who used to do brisk business, have now shifted to Bangalore or Chennai. “We waited for a year for a miracle to bring business back, but nothing happened and hardly any of the rich and famous have come and business has dwindled,” said Mohammed Aslam Khan of Srinagar, who now has a shop in Jayanagar, Bangalore.

Many locals fear that only monkeys, donkeys and dogs will rule the area from now on. Some hope that Puttaparthi will regain its vitality like Shirdi. “No one knew about Shirdi until Bollywood made a film about it. Puttaparthi will flourish again, but it will take a long time. Who can wait that long?” says Gopala Krishna Iyer, who runs a once-bustling eatery.

“We locals are used to periods of inactivity when Sai Baba was in Whitefield, Bangalore or Kodaikanal and devotees did not come. Ashram“But now Puttaparthi has a permanent off-season and has become a ghost town like in a Western movie, devoid of guests and devotees,” says Dinakar Rao, a local activist who moved to Dharmavaram for training.

In his absence, liquor stores, bars, butcher shops and cinema halls have come up in Puttaparthi, which did not exist during Sai Baba’s lifetime. “Things have changed, but Sai Baba’s legacy and the work of the trust are still respected,” said RV Ratnakar, a member of the trust and Sai Baba’s nephew (son of the late RV Janakiram and brother of the “godman”).

Waiting for Sai Baba

Sai Baba’s followers await his successor, who he predicts will appear in 2030.

According to an official report submitted to the Andhra Pradesh government after Sai Baba’s death in 2011, the trust has fixed deposits of Rs 1,500 crore in banks, earning Rs 12 billion in interest per year. It also receives donations of over Rs 6 billion per year. The godman organised the trust with a trusted team of professionals, including former Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati, Supreme Court justices VR Krishna Iyer and V Balakrishna Elardi and former Andhra Pradesh High Court judge YV Anjaneyulu, but many of them have now distanced themselves from the organisation due to power struggles.

Interestingly, Sai Baba had the foresight to thwart all attempts by his relatives to corner the Trust and the corpus. There were days when his brother Janakiram used to sit in front of the church gate. Ashram When Sai Baba was ill, they tried to interfere in his day-to-day running of the Trust. There were close to 200 relatives who relied on Sai Baba’s influence and cashed in on his recommendations, opening restaurants, shopping malls, taxi services and becoming contractors in Puttaparthi. The only reason the family members were kept away from the Trust was because the Andhra Pradesh government had threatened to take over the Trust in 2011 by invoking the Hindu Religious Charitable Endowments Act, 1959, if the power struggle continued.

But for now, Puttaparthi awaits a miracle that will change its destiny.

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