Giving voice to poverty in India

Viswanathan's new book documents the experience of poverty in India.
written by Phil Ciciora
photography by Alpana Aras-King

Dr. Madhu Viswanathan has traveled the world, often taking his students with him, to learn more about how people conduct business far removed from Wall Street. For Viswanathan, teaching is as much about listening and learning as it is about lecturing.

Madhu Viswanathan, left, professor of business and Steven Morse, right, a graduate student who helped turn the book into a multimedia portal.

Viswanathan, the Diane and Steven N. Miller Centennial Chair in Business at Illinois, founded and directs the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative in the College of Business, a pioneering, bottom-up approach to the study of poverty and marketplaces for scholars and practitioners. He is also the co-author of a new book, “Voices from Subsistence Marketplaces.”

“This book is really about giving a voice to people living in subsistence marketplaces and learning about their dreams, ambitions and search for fulfillment,” said Viswanathan, “The idea is to amplify those voices, with minimal interpretation and academic theory behind it.”

The book, which was four-plus years in the making, including many back-and-forth trips to both rural and urban India for Viswanathan and his co-authors, isn’t prescriptive but is akin to a documentary.

“It’s a first-person account of the day-to-day existence of someone who grew up in poverty,” said Viswanathan, also the founder and director of the Marketplace Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that helps enable marketplace literacy among low-literate, low-income people.

“Each of the 13 individuals we profiled in this book has shared their lives openly and passionately with us, and we are humbled by the opportunity to share their stories,” Viswanathan said. “We have met these individuals on multiple occasions and they include two of my own team members. Some of these stories were told in the sweltering heat of Chennai, amid the rolling power blackouts. Others were told to us outside small thatched huts next to sprawling rice paddies in rural Tamil Nadu. Everyone involved revisited the most painful parts of their lives in order to simply share their stories with us.”

Meet some of the men and women featured in the book

Padmavathy has lived a life of subsistence for sixty years, in a setting where steady jobs are scarce. Happily, Padmavathy was steadily employed for thirty-six years—for sixteen years she sold tea, coffee, and food items from a stall run out of her home in a small village in Tamil Nadu, followed by twenty years working in a hospital in Chennai as a housekeeper.

Sigamani lives in a village a few hours south of Chennai and comes from a long line of barbers. He sets up shop along a low stone wall about thirty feet from his house, attracting customers as they pass by. His son opened his own shop five kilometers away, where he plans to expand to a wide variety of services.

Lalitha runs her own shop located on a dusty roadside, 100 meters from her home. With loans from the government and her women’s self-help group, she built a mobile stall with a thatched roof where she sells packets of soaps and shampoos, candies and chocolates, toothpaste, spices, chips, bottled drinks, and small amounts of petrol.

Venkat has worked with Dr. Viswanathan’s Marketplace Literacy Project since 2004 and subsequently became cofounder of his own non-profit to bring consumer and economic education to communities in South India. Venkat lived a life of subsistence—most of his youth was spent in a home without electricity and he went barefoot to school—an experience he brings with him to his work with the men and women he helps.

After suffering the loss of two failed businesses, Kamala and her husband now have a successful business delivering milk and water, which they’ve run successfully for the last thirteen years. She bursts with pride over her daughter, who is in her first year of working toward her BCA (Bachelor of Computer Applications) at a college in Chennai.

Madhu Viswanathan, the Diane and Steven N. Miller Professor in Business at Illinois, thanks a group of women for hosting Illinois students on a research trip.