A year without Sai Baba tells on hometown - Business dwindles and land prices drop sharply in puttaparthi

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By G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
  • Published 25.04.12
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Hyderabad, April 24: Soul gone, nothing sums up Puttaparthi’s tale better than two earthy words — square foot.

When Sai Baba was alive, the land rates in this town hovered between Rs 800 and Rs 1,000 a square foot.

Exactly a year after his death, it’s now Rs 250-300 per sqft.

For die-hard devotees, economics and devotion belong to two different spheres, but as this dusty town prepared for the first death anniversary of its famous son, one uncertainty haunted every corner.

What does the future hold?

“When Baba was here, it was as if the whole year was season. Even the recession hardly affected us. But now, things are uncertain and we might soon have to think of shifting to other places like Bangalore,” said Aftab Ahmed, a Kashmiri who set up his curio and silk shop here 30 years ago.

Many visiting VIPs used to present silk shawls to Sai Baba. Although you can get shawls made of local silk from Dharmavaram, hardly 30km away, the late spiritual leader preferred Kashmiri shawls which he wore during his evening discourses.

Today, the rustle of silk has been replaced by the threadbare anxiety of survival at Prashanti Nilayam, the late godman’s ashram.

A member of Sai Baba’s trust tried to put up a brave front as the town got ready for the anniversary events lined up over three days.

“The Baba lives in every one of us and, as such, we don’t see any slump in turnout, though the extravaganza may be missing,” said Sai Baba’s nephew Ratnakar Raju.

But beyond the smoke from the incense sticks, the town, 435km south-west of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district, told a different tale.

Nearly 7,500 of the town’s 32,000 houses have fallen vacant. Land prices which had risen till April 2011 to Rs 800-1,000 a sqft are now just Rs 250-300 per sqft.

“Previously, people, especially devotees from abroad, would stay for six months at a stretch. But who will stay longer than a day to see a samadhi,” said an officer at the Puttaparthi branch of a public sector bank.

The airport has been readied for the arrival of the governor and the chief minister, but the frequency of flights has dwindled. The private airport at Puttaparthi used to be kept open thrice a week. Flights are now available only on special request.

For traders, bankers and vehicle operators, Sai Baba was the centre of a Rs 1,000-crore thriving yearly business. Now, they are keeping their fingers crossed.

Among those who once thronged the town, which had emerged as a sort of a resort for both business and devotion, were top politicians, judges, industrialists and civil servants.

“It would be a canard to say that all came for favours. But come, they did,” said a former trustee and former Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati.

The Sathya Sai Central Trust’s 1,000-bed hospital in Puttaparthi and the 200-bed super-speciality facility in Whitefield, Bangalore, now face a staff crunch.

“I am not interested in Puttaparthi or Whitefield now,” said Dr M.C. Naidu, a cardiologist who gave up a month’s lucrative practice in Bangalore and Delhi just to stay in Puttaparthi with Sai Baba.

On April 22, 2011, thousands had gathered to pray for the ailing Sai Baba, who was in hospital for 28 days before breathing his last on April 24.

Today, motley crowds sat for prayers in a temple built inside the ashram. A temple without its soul.