India’s cherished “joint families” system is under threat. What can be done to preserve its values?

In India’s business world, the Marwari community is a formidable force. A part of its success is often attributed to the system of “joint families”, which has created many great business dynasties. But the system is in decline, leading to concerns that its advantages may be irreplaceable and thus pose challenges to the business dominance of communities like the Marwaris. 

The “joint families” concept is based on the idea of living together and sharing business responsibilities among grandfathers, fathers, sons, and other family members or close relatives. 

Marwaris, which originally come from Marwar (where pictured above, Jaswant Thada is based), a region of western Rajasthan state – has given rise to great family business dynasties such as the Birlas, the Mittals, and the Agarwals. 

The resources created by joint families, including the pooling of financial resources, collective decision-making, and shared responsibilities, have provided a robust foundation for entrepreneurship in India.

The joint family system facilitated a collaborative approach to business, where the collective wisdom of the family contributed to strategic decision-making and sustainable growth.

Marwaris, which originally come from Marwar – a region of western Rajasthan state – has given rise to great family business dynasties such as the Birlas, the Mittals, and the Agarwals

Assessing the impact of joint family disintegration on businesses remains elusive and largely anecdotal. Hence, there is a pressing need to investigate the mechanisms that fostered familial cohesion and identify critical factors that facilitated harmonious coexistence among family members. 

By gaining insights into these dynamics, contemporary families may incorporate pertinent traits to preserve the advantages of a diversified resource pool while upholding individuality and freedom.

Basant Hetamsaria, the head of the Hetamsaria family, shares a compelling narrative of the organic evolution of their joint family in Ramgarh, in the state of Jharkhand. From a small family of three, the family expanded to 30 members across four generations, diversifying economic pursuits while remaining tightly united. His unexpected role as the family head at a young age underscores the indispensable need for a universal head.

“In the familial framework, I emphasize the pivotal role of a universal head—a unifying force offering direction and leadership, even within collective decision-making. The essence of prudence, fairness, and transparency in our decision-making cannot be overstated. We must strike a delicate balance between authority and respect, endorsing an informal code of conduct that nurtures mutual respect and consideration among us, the family members,” says Basant.

The challenges of decision imposition and the necessity for transparency underscore the importance of a unified approach within joint families. “Every adult and youth in the family must have a voice, preventing unnecessary controversies and promoting a harmonious environment. Furthermore, ensuring suitable opportunities for education and employment aligned with individual abilities is crucial for the collective well-being of the joint family,” says Basant.

Strong family values, including familiarity, love, affection, harmony, and cooperation, are essential for the success of joint families. Basant’s insights highlight the need for an adaptable family dynamic that can navigate changing environments, ensuring the continued relevance and resilience of joint families.

However, the disintegration of joint families, which was considered one of the strengths of business families in India, poses certain challenges for contemporary business families, such as communication and bonding. Despite the array of communication tools available, such as instant phone calls, WhatsApp, and emails, the absence of physical proximity can lead to communication and personal challenges. 

Face-to-face interactions in joint families foster a deeper understanding of individual strengths, preferences, and challenges, which is often difficult to achieve through virtual means. The nuances of non-verbal communication and the daily interactions that build personal bonds are diminished when family members are geographically dispersed.

“In today’s era, the concept of joint families may be considered unconventional, and a more open and liberal model should be explored as a potential sustainable family solution amidst the challenges of modern relationships, increasing tensions, growing distances between spouses, and fractured relationships,” says Basant.

Perhaps establishing a structured leadership model within the family, designating a family leader who plays a pivotal role in providing direction, fostering transparency, and ensuring fair decision-making would help the business families, despite not being in a joint family system. 

This leader should embody the qualities of prudence, fairness, and transparency, striking a delicate balance between authority and respect. This structured approach would help maintain a cohesive family unit and facilitate effective decision-making.

Similarly, a culture of collaborative decision-making where the opinions and perspectives of every family member, both adults and youth, are valued should be encouraged. 

Families should develop a framework that ensures active participation from all members, preventing unnecessary controversies and promoting a harmonious environment. By integrating diverse viewpoints, families can tap into the collective wisdom of individual talents, similar to the collaborative approach seen in joint family systems.

The success of many business families that were joint families lies in their unique ability to create a rich resource basket, foster collaboration, and provide a robust foundation for entrepreneurial endeavours. 

Basant Hetamsaria’s insights underscore the importance of a universal head, prudence, fairness, transparency, and commitment to maintaining the resilience of joint families. 

Despite the challenges posed by modernity and the disintegration of joint families, its principles continue to be of relevance. It offers valuable lessons for contemporary business families. Incorporating what joint families offered in a modern setting would retain entrepreneuring families and their rich resources basket.

The author is the academic director at the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business


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