Competition Watchdog | Know why CCI imposed penalties on beer companies: Nation-wide Cartel? Read Full Report

Competition Commission of India (CCI): Noting a nationwide cartel amongst certain Beer companies, Coram of Ashok Kumar Gupta (Chairperson) and Sangeeta Verma, Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi (Members) imposed penalty on three beer companies on finding regular communications with respect to planning and coordinating of price hikes to propose to State authorities

CCI initiated the present matter suo motu, pursuant to the filing of an application by Crown Beers India Private Limited (OP-2) and SABMiller India Limited (OP-3), both ultimately held by Anheuser Busch InBev SA/NV (Ab InBev) against the captioned parties (OPs) for alleged cartelization in relation to the production, marketing, distribution and sale of Beer in India.

Commission noted that there appeared existence of collusion amongst OPs 2 and 3 along with United Breweries (OP-1) and Carlsberg India Private Limited (OP-4) to:

  • Align the prices of Beer
  • Seek/implement price adjustments in several States and Union Territories of India, irrespective of whether the model of distribution of alcohol (including Beer) therein was of corporation market, auction market or free market.

The aim of the companies appeared to be to ensure consistency in their pricing policies, in particular, price increases and to achieve this aim, OP1 to OP-4 appeared to have coordinated by way of series of multilateral and bilateral meetings and e-mail exchanges amongst themselves as well as through common platform of All India Brewers’ Association (OP-5).

On 31-10-2017, Commission passed an order forming an opinion that prima facie, the conduct of the OPs appears to be in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(1) read with Section 3(3)(a) of the Act and consequently, directed DG to cause an investigation into the matter. 

DG’s Report

DG noted that the sale of liquor (including Beer) does not fall within the ambit of the Goods and Services Tax (‘GST’). As such, each State/UT in India has its own unique method of regulating the sale of liquor (including Beer) within its territory, leading to differences in pricing regulations and approvals, imposition of different taxes, different excise duties and differing terms of licensing, among others.

Issue

  • Whether the OP’s indulge in cartelization in the domestic Beer market I India in contravention of the provisions of Section 3 of the Act?

DG concluded that OPs 1,3 and 4 indulged in the exchange of vital information amongst themselves about pricing and other confidential and business-sensitive information. These companies approached the State Governments collectively through the common platform of OP-5 to get price revisions to agreed levels so as to avoid price wars among themselves.

Hence, they contravened the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act.

Analysis

Commission noted that the DG has established cartelization amongst the OPs in 10 States/UTs out of total 36 States/UTs in India.

In view of evidences collected by the DG, and analysed by the Commission, in the following States/UTs, cartelization amongst the OPs stood established:

(1) Andhra Pradesh – Price co-ordination between OP-1 and OP-3 in 2009 and 2013, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act;

(2) Delhi – Price co-ordination between OP-1, OP-3 and OP-4 through OP-5 in 2013, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act;

(3) Karnataka – Price-co-ordination between OP-1 and OP-3 from 2011 to 2018 with OP-4 joining in from 2012, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; and cartelisation between OP-1 and OP-3 with respect to supply of Beer to premium institutions in the city of Bengaluru in 2010, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(c) read with Section 3(1) of the Act;

(4) Maharashtra – Price co-ordination between OP-1 and OP-3 from 2011 to 2018 with OP-4 joining in from 2012, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; cartelisation between OP-1 and OP-4 to restrict/limit the supply of Beer in 2017, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(b) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; and sharing of market between OP-1, OP-3 and OP-4 from 2013 to 2017, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(c) read with Section 3(1) of the Act;

(5) Odisha – Price co-ordination between OP-1 and OP-3 in 2009 and 2010, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; price co-ordination by OP-4 in 2015 and 2016, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; and cartelisation between OP-1, OP-3 and OP-4, through OP-5, to restrict/limit the supply of Beer in 2015–16, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(b) read with Section 3(1) of the Act;

(6) Puducherry – Price co-ordination between OP-1, OP-3 and OP-4 in 2017, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act;

(7) Rajasthan – Price co-ordination between OP-1, OP-3 and OP-4 through OP-5 from 2011 to 2018 with OP-4 joining in from 2014, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; and

(8) West Bengal – Price co-ordination between OP-1 and OP-4 through OP-5, from 2012 to 2018, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a) read with Section 3(1) of the Act; and cartelisation between OP-1 and OP-4, through OP-5, to restrict/limit the supply of Beer in 2018, in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(b) read with Section 3(1) of the Act.

Second-Hand Bottles

Further, apart from price co-ordination and limiting/restricting supply of Beer in various States/UTs, the DG also reached to a finding of co-ordination amongst OP-1 and OP-3 with respect to purchasing of second-hand bottles.

Commission observed that the provisions of the Act do not just pertain to the end-consumers of goods/services.

“No distinction in the Act, for the purposes of assessment of anti-competitive conduct, is made between the end-consumers, and intermediaries falling in the supply chain.”

 Coram opined that given the sheer magnitude and size of the OP companies, their countervailing buying power over small time bottle collectors, would have been substantial.

Hence, cartelization amongst OP-1 and OP-3 from at least 2009 to 2012 in the purchase of second hand bottles was clearly established.

OP-1 and OP-3 had an ‘understanding’ to share their off-take of old bottles from the market for re-use in their breweries. They had also agreed upon the rate at which they would procure such bottles from the bottle collectors. They closely monitored each other’s purchase of old bottles. Such conduct of OP-1 and OP-3 may have resulted in limiting and controlling the supply of second-hand Beer bottles in the market, amounting to contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(b) read with Section 3(1) of the Act.

 OP-4 was not found guilty of cartelization with respect to second-hand Beer bottles.

Commission stated that OP-1 and OP-3 indulged into nation-wide cartelisation from 2009 to at least 10.10.2018 (till the DG conducted search and seizure operation at the premises of the OPs), with OP-4 joining in from 2012 and with OP-5, since 2013, serving as a platform for facilitating such cartelisation, which is in contravention of the provisions of Section 3(3)(a), 3(3)(b) and 3(3)(c) read with Section 3(1) of the Act.

15 individuals were liable for the anti-competitive conduct of their respective companies.

Conclusion

In terms of proviso to Section 27(b) of the Competition Act, in cases of catelisation, Commission is empowered to impose upon the contravening entities penalty of upto 3 times of the profit of each year of the continuance of the cartel, or 10% of its turnover for each year of the continuance of the cartel, whichever is higher.

Commission determined the quantum of penalty imposed on the parties @ 0.5 times profit for each year of the continuance of the cartel or 2% of the turnover for each year of the continuance of the cartel, whichever is higher.

Lastly, the Coram directed the parties to cease and desist in future from indulging in any practice/conduct/activity, which has been found in the present order to be in contravention of the provisions of Section 3 of the Act. [Alleged anti-competitive conduct in the Beer Market in India, In Re.; Suo Motu Case No. 6 of 2017, decided on 24-9-2021]


Advocates before the Commission:

For United Breweries Ltd. (UBL), Mr. Kalyan Ganguly of UBL, Mr. Kiran Kumar of UBL, Mr. Perry Goes of UBL and Mr. Shekhar Ramamurthy of UBL:

Mr. Amit Sibal, Senior Advocate alongwith Mr. Ravishekhar Nair, Ms. Avantika Kakkar, Mr. Sahil Khanna, Mr. Abhay Joshi, Mr. Kirthi Srinivas, Mr. Ambar Bhushan, Mr. Saksham Dhingra, Mr. Animesh Kumar, Ms. Shreya Joshi and Ms. Sree Ramya Hari, Advocates and Mr. Govind Iyengar, Senior VP Legal of UBL, Mr. Kiran Kumar in person, Mr. Perry Goes in person and Mr. Shekhar Ramamurthy in person

For Mr. Shalabh Seth of UBL:

Mr. Ramji Srinivasan, Senior Advocate alongwith Mr. Gaurav Desai, Ms. Apurva Badoni and Mr. Shivkrit Rai, Advocates

For Mr. Steven Bosch of UBL:

Mr. Prashanto Chandra Sen, Senior Advocate alongwith Ms. Nisha Kaur Oberoi, Mr. Gautam Chawla, Mr. Rishabh Juneja and Ms. Shambhavi Sinha, Advocates

For Anheuser Busch InBev SA/NV (i.e., Crown Beers India Private Limited and SABMiller India Limited):

Mr. Manas Kumar Chaudhari, Mr. Pranjal Prateek, Mr. Sagardeep Rathi and Ms. Radhika Seth, Advocates alongwith Ms. Ajita Pichaipillai, Legal and Compliance Director of AB InBev

For Mr. Anil Arya of SABMiller India Ltd.: For Mr. Nilojit Guha of SABMiller India Ltd.:

Mr. Talha Abdul Rahman, Advocate
Mr. Tahir Ashraf Siddiqui, Advocate with Mr. Nilojit Guha in person

For Mr. S. Diwakaran of SABMiller India Ltd.:

Mr. Shreyas Mehrotra, Advocate

For Carlsberg India Pvt. Ltd. (CIPL), Mr. Anil Bahl of CIPL, Mr. Dhiraj Kapur of CIPL, Mr. Mahesh Kanchan of CIPL, Mr. Michael Jensen of CIPL and Mr. Nilesh Patel of CIPL

Mr. Rajshekhar Rao, Ms. Manika Brar, Ms. Atrayee Sarkar, Mr. Anandh Venkataramani, Mr. Nilav Banerjee, Ms. Kajori De, Ms. Afreen Abbassi and Ms. Raveena Sethia, Advocates alongwith Mr. Amit Sethi of CIPL

For Mr. Pawan Jagetia of CIPL:

Ms. Deeksha Manchanda and Mr. Shruti Rao, Advocates

For All India Brewers’ Association (AIBA): For Mr. Sovan Roy of AIBA:

Mr. Subodh Prasad Deo and Ms. Rinki Singh, Advocates, with Mr. Sovan Roy in person

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