After languishing without a chief for seven months, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) is back to work at full tilt. Ravneet Kaur, the new CCI Chairperson, who took over in late May, has her priorities set out clearly, and taking up pending cases is just one of them.
“My key priorities include addressing pending cases related to antitrust and anti-profiteering and expediting new regulations so as to operationalise the amendments undertaken in the Competition Act recently,” Kaur tells Business Today.
“Timely enforcement, including investigation and adjudication, and taking effective steps for advocacy is a priority area,” she says, adding that organising the eighth BRICS International Competition Conference in October is also a priority.
Since it became operational in 2009, the CCI has sought to promote competition in markets, protect consumer interests, and ensure freedom of trade. Its functions include not just clearing large-scale mergers and transactions and regulating anti-competitive practices but also anti-profiteering under the goods and services tax (GST), as well as advocacy, research, and international co-operation.
In fact, Kaur highlights another priority for her—collaboration with international competition authorities and organisations for sharing best practices, fostering cooperation in cross-border cases, and showcasing the CCI’s work.
Kaur, a 1988 batch officer of the Indian Administrative Service from the Punjab cadre, took charge as the CCI’s Chairperson on May 23. Before that, the CCI worked with just two members for nearly seven months, and many activities were impacted or put on hold because of a lack of quorum. The CCI can consist of the Chairperson and up to six members. Quorum requires at least three members.
The main concern for industry was the delay in clearing merger and acquisition proposals after former CCI chairperson Ashok Kumar Gupta demitted office in October 2022. It estimated that more than 16 deals worth more than `10,000 crore were pending approval. Subsequently, the anti-trust regulator was given the go-ahead by the government to clear these deals through a special dispensation under the doctrine of necessity, despite a lack of quorum.
Since taking charge, Kaur has demonstrated that she means business. The CCI has cleared a dozen mergers and acquisitions since May 26, after she took over.
The CCI, along with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, is also working to notify the provisions of the Competition (Amendment) Act, 2023, and has a plethora of other issues, including regulating digital markets and taking up cases of anti-profiteering under GST.
Kaur says that several provisions of the amendment have been enforced through notifications in May and July. “However, certain provisions are yet to be implemented, pending the establishment of rules, regulations, and procedures after stakeholder consultations. CCI is diligently working on formulating the necessary regulations to complete the implementation process,” she says.
The amendments, which were enacted in April, aim at a comprehensive overhaul of the competition laws. Several provisions of the Act, such as the higher penalty of `5 crore for false statements and provisions relating to hub-and-spoke cartels were notified in May. However, other provisions, like those on deal value thresholds and a green channel for automatic approval, are still pending. The CCI has recently issued draft regulations for commitment and settlement and has invited stakeholder comments.
Discussions are also underway on the proposed Digital Competition Bill. “The government has established a committee on digital competition law to address this matter. The Committee is actively working on the issue, and we can expect to see developments in due course,” says Kaur, when asked about the proposed bill and its highlights.
With growing complexities and challenges surrounding the digital economy and the rise of Big Tech and subsequent competition-related issues, the regulator has
been working on ways to address these and is in the process of setting up a specialised unit. “The commission has granted in-principle approval for the setting up of a Digital Markets and Data Unit in CCI that will act as a specialised interdisciplinary centre of expertise for digital markets,” says Kaur.
In two landmark cases last year, the CCI imposed penalties of `1,337.76 crore and `936.44 crore against tech giant Google for anti-competitive behaviour, apart from issuing a cease-and-desist order and remedies.
The commission has also taken cognisance of alleged anti-competitive practices indulged in by other tech behemoths such as Apple, Flipkart and Amazon, Meta-WhatsApp, Zomato and Swiggy, MakeMyTrip, OYO, and BookMyShow and ordered investigations.
Kaur says the CCI has started hearing cases relating to anti-profiteering under the GST as well. “The commission has considered a large number of pending reports of the Director General, Anti-Profiteering, and taken suitable action. Prior to that, the methodology and procedure for consideration of anti-profiteering matters were updated,” she says.
From December 1, 2022, the CCI was mandated to look into anti-profiteering issues related to GST after the winding up of the National Anti-profiteering Authority. However, a lack of quorum meant that this was not taken up initially. The CCI has now passed a number of final and interim orders related to anti-profiteering.
When asked about vacancies in the CCI, Kaur says work is underway to ensure the regulator is fully staffed. “The government has already initiated the process for filling up the vacancies in the commission,” she says. To increase staff numbers, a cadre restructuring proposal was sent to the government in September 2022, she notes.
As per the 63rd report of the Standing Committee on Finance of the Lok Sabha, out of the sanctioned strength of 195 in the CCI, 128 were in position and 67 posts were vacant as of May 11. The ministry informed the parliamentary panel that recruitment has been kept in abeyance due to the comprehensive cadre restructuring that is underway.
Kaur notes that the regulator’s priorities may evolve over time based on the changing economic and regulatory landscape as well as the specific challenges it faces. Given the growing size of the Indian economy, it’s a given that the regulator will have more on its plate in the days to come.
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