SEBI in the Shoes of CCI: the Jurisdictional Tussle Continues

By Deepanshu Agarwal, a fourth-year student at UPES, Dehradun

Introduction

The Securities & Exchange Board of India (‘SEBI’) and the Competition Commission of India (‘CCI’) are separate independent regulatory bodies which often jurisdictionally overlap with each other. This happens due to the commonality in their objectives of ensuring the protection of consumers and promoting a healthy market.

In the case of Advocate Jitesh Maheshwari v. National Stock Exchange of India Ltd. (2019) (‘NSE Case’), CCI refused to deal with the matterregarding abuse of dominance by National Stock Exchange (‘NSE’) and allowed SEBI to continue with their practice. This was a drastic turn taken by CCI to allow a sectoral regulator to deal with the abuse of dominance, which is an issue majorly dealt with by CCI under section 4 of the Competition Act, 2002.

In the instant case, the informant alleged that for almost four years (i.e. 2010-2014), NSE had been giving preferential treatment and unfair access to some of the traders by communicating to them price feed and other data. According to the informant, this was a discriminatory practice followed by NSE towards other traders on the same footing & thus resulted in ‘denial of market access’. Moreover, the informant proposed the relevant market as the ‘market for providing services of trading in securities’ and contended that NSE is a dominant player in the market as it holds a huge market share, consumer dependency and entry barriers for the new stock exchanges.

Though CCI noted that such discriminatory practices exist in its jurisdiction, the case was dismissed without going into its merits. The reasoning of CCI was that: (i) the allegations against NSE were not final and are yet to be established in appropriate proceedings; and that (ii) there was a lack of evidence to form a prima facie opinion about the role of NSE. However, CCI mentioned that it could examine the discriminatory and abusive conduct independently, based on cogent facts and evidence after the completion of investigation by SEBI. But the question that remains unanswered here is that if SEBI does not reach an adverse finding on the question of NSE’s role, can CCI then still examine NSE’s conduct? To answer this question, it becomes imperative to analyse this order in the light of the Supreme Court’s judgment in the case of CCI v. Bharti Airtel Ltd. & Ors. (2019) (‘Bharti Airtel’).

The jurisdictional tussle in Bharti Airtel

Though this case revolves around the jurisdictional fight between Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (‘TRAI’) and CCI, yet it is a landmark judgment when it comes to the jurisdictional overlap between CCI and other sectoral regulators, apart from TRAI.

Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., a new entrant in the telecom market, approached CCI against the Incumbent Dominant Operators (or ‘IDOs’ namely Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular and Vodafone) for forming a cartel to deny market entry and thereby causing an adverse effect on competition in the telecom market. While the case was already under investigation by TRAI, CCI found out a prima facie violation against the IDOs. The Bombay High Court, in the appeal made by the IDOs, set aside the order of CCI on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction as the matter was already under investigation by TRAI.

The Supreme Court while confirming the findings of the Bombay High Court did not deny the jurisdiction of CCI altogether but made its investigation subject to the findings of TRAI. It did so by giving CCI a secondary jurisdiction over the matter. In this regard, the court held that “Once that investigation is done and there are findings returned by the TRAI which lead to the prima facie conclusion that IDOs have indulged in anti-competitive practices, the CCI can be activated to investigate the matter going by the criteria laid down in the relevant provisions of the Competition Act and take it to its logical conclusion”.

Applying the reading of Bharti Airtel to the NSE case, it can be concluded that the jurisdiction of the CCI begins only when there are adverse findings returned by SEBI. Similar to TRAI, SEBI is also a sectoral regulator and will have primary jurisdiction in dealing with the abuse of dominance/adverse competition in the capital markets. Therefore, it can be concluded in the instant order that the CCI was justified in not going into the merits, by accepting itself as a regulator having a secondary jurisdiction in such cases.

Since the instant order passed by CCI is in line with Bharti Airtel, it also suffers from similar criticisms.

Criticism of the NSE Case

Since both SEBI and CCI have a common objective to ensure consumer protection and fair market competition, it is clear that there may be jurisdictional overlaps. Both the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 and the Competition Act, 2002 provide for jurisdiction in addition to and not in derogation to other laws. However, neither of the two acts provide the remedy in case of a jurisdictional overlap. This ambiguity paves the way for concurrent jurisdiction of both the regulators which further leads to conflicting decisions and legal uncertainty.

In such a scenario, putting CCI at a lower pedestal by giving it secondary jurisdiction (as evidenced in Bharti Airtel and the NSE case) may not be the optimal solution for jurisdictional issues. Rather, the CCI being an independent competition watchdog should be allowed to deal with the competition matters freely and irrespective of the findings of the sectoral regulators. It has to be noted that CCI is a specialized body created solely with the purpose to prevent abuse of dominance and adverse effect of competition. Therefore, subjecting CCI’s jurisdiction to the findings of any other sectoral regulator would only hamper the object for which it was created, thereby weakening its authority.

The Way Forward

The best way through which the jurisdictional tussle can be resolved is following the mandatory consultation approach. This means that if a situation of jurisdictional intersect arises, then both the regulators should consult with each other as to who can deal with the matter more effectively and efficiently. This can be a credible solution to remove all defects from such jurisdictional matters and ensure some technical input is also given by the sectoral regulator.

Under the current regulatory framework, India follows a non-mandatory consultation approach. Section 21 & 21A of the Competition Act incorporates a mechanism for consultation between the statutory authorities and the commission. However, consultation under these sections is neither mandatory nor binding.

Lessons should be drawn from other countries which are successfully following the mandatory consultation approach. For example, in Turkey, under the Electronic Communications Law No. 5809, the Competition Board has the statutory duty to receive and take account of the opinion of the relevant regulatory authority (the Information Technologies and Communications Authority) when enforcing the competition law in the telecommunications sector. Moreover, Turkey’s competition authority also sends its opinion to the Information Technologies and Communications Authority regarding draft regulations in the consultation process.

The mandatory consultation process is also followed in other countries like Argentina and France. This process was also suggested in India by the National Committee on National Competition Policy and Allied Matters in 2011. Therefore, it is the need of the hour that this change be implemented.

Considering the existing legislative framework, substituting the word ‘may’ with ‘shall’ in Sections 21 and 21A of the Competition Act and making the opinion of CCI or the sectoral regulators binding upon the other will leverage the expertise of both the entities and will enable the initiation of a cooperative regime.

Conclusion

Abuse of dominance/adverse effect on market is specifically the area that CCI deals with, it is erroneous for SEBI to encroach upon the same. Both the technical aspects and the competition matters in a case have to be viewed separately. SEBI being a sectoral regulator and a lex specialis in the capital markets can deal with the technical matters more effectively than CCI. Whereas, on the other hand, CCI being a lex specialis in competition matters can deal with the same with more proficiency. Therefore, in cases involving jurisdictional conflict, it is fallacious to place CCI at a secondary stage. Rather, the mandatory consultation approach should be followed by the regulators in such cases to solve the conflict in a more harmonious and effectual manner.

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