Revisiting the ‘Adverse effect’ factor in unilateral commissions: ZOMATO/ SWIGGY CASE



Unilateral terms of an agreement are seen with suspicion and are often subjected to legal challenge on the grounds that it is arbitrary and unreasonable in nature. The unilateral terms which are abusive and are imposed on others under a‘compelled’      agreement, are also covered within the purview of ‘practice’ encouraging anti-competitive agreements under Section 3(3) of the Competition Act, 2002 (“the Act). Such a broad interpretation can also be traced to the judgment of BMW Belgium SA v. Commission of European Communities , where the European Court of Justice (“ECJ) defined the scope and validity of the agreement promoting unilateral conduct of a party. The principle was even adopted for Indian market in Aluminium Phosphide Cartel case to recognise bid rigging as a ‘practice’. However, for the application of the Section, the conduct should have an Appreciable Adverse Effect on Competition (“AAEC”).

In a recent letter addressed to Competition Commission of India (“CCI), the Jubilant FoodWorks, the holding firm of Domino’s have indicated their intention to pull out from the deals with food delivery platforms like Zomato and Swiggy due to high commissions charged by these food delivery giants. The letter is a shockwave of the allegations of National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) against exorbitant commissions charged by the food delivery platforms which ranges between 10% to 30% and the resultant investigative raids by CCI.

In the case that ensued, the CCI made the order in favour of the food delivery giants to hold their unilateral conducts not anti-competitive. While normally, the judgment of CCI is in accordance with the principles enshrined in the Indian Contract Act, 1872 (“Contract Act), the Indian watchdog neglected in taking note of the future outcome of such unilateral terms and the adverse impact it may have on the competition in the market.

In view of these contemporary developments, this article analyses the status of the unilateral conducts like charging of high commissions, which are however part of the agreement and are therefore valid under the Contract Act, in light of the competition laws and principles of the country. The article then investigates deeper into the facets of AAEC and the importance held by ‘public interest’ in the determination of the case, thus giving a critical analysis of the CCI’s stance. 

Unfair terms of agreement and unilateral conduct

Unfair terms of a contract have been a contentious issue in the contract law of every jurisdiction. While some protection has been offered under Section 23 of the Contract Act which considers contracts with objects opposed to public policy     ,reliance is often placed by both the consumers and the courts upon the principles of equity and justice embodied under Article 14 of the      Constitution to escape its pre-conditions. In the recent case of NRAI v. Zomato Ltd. & Anr., one of the major contentions of NRAI was related to the one-sided terms of the contract, particularly      the commission clause. However, from the principle given in the United States v. Parke Davis & Co., the concurrence by even an unwilling party will result into a valid contract.

This makes it apparent that Section 23 will not be applicable in the present case, even if the Restaurant Partners (“RPs) did not have any choice but to agree with the unilateral terms. However, the unilateral conduct of the dominant players and unfair trade practices has been a      major issue in the country since the initiation of debates around the Monopolies Restrictive Trade Practices (Amendment) Bill, 1983. The legal void in the contract laws was also recognised in the 103rdReport of the Law Commission of India which recommended the insertion of the provision dealing with unconscionable conducts.

     Given the above legal position, the CCI’s order seems legally justified. However, the order will have dire consequences on the market competition in the future due to its economic and legal value. The problem however could have been avoided if CCI had interpreted Section 3 of the Act from a broader perspective like the ECJ did in BMW Belgium SA case . Although it can be inferred that the provision has been applied in the CCI’s order, the commission made a narrow interpretation of the adverse effect factor by failing to note of the provision, thus showing its ignorance of its prior legal instance and relevant circumstances of the case. This mistake can have a huge impact on not only the market and RPs, but also their customers, thus affecting the economic structure as a whole. 

Looking from a broader perspective: A Review of the ‘Adverse Effect’ factor

Section 3(1) of the Act introduces the principle of Appreciable Adverse Effect on Competition       violation of which prohibits the enterprises from entering into anti-competitive agreements. It refers not to a particular list of agreements, but to a particular economic consequence, which may be produced by different sort of agreements in varying time and circumstances. It majorly deals with the acts, contracts, agreements, conducts and combinations which operate to the prejudice of the public interests by unduly restricting competition or unduly obstructing due course of trade.

However, for the factor to be applicable, reliance has to be placed upon the words ‘appreciable’ and ‘effect on competition’. In the present context, therefore, it is pertinent to       effectively analyse           the food delivery market of India, especially with respect to the separate relevant markets of both Zomato and Swiggy. Moreover, the nature of the restraint and conditions in the respective relevant markets before and after the restraint also has to be judged for giving a proper application to the principle of AAEC.

The term ‘appreciable’ has been defined by ECJ in Volk v. Vervaeke, where reliance was placed upon the probability ofthe pattern of trade such that it might hinder the very objective of the competition law. Similarly the Commission Notice on Agreement of Minor Importance provides for the circumstances under which actions are not viewed as significantenough to appreciably restrict competition. This further gives a concrete meaning to the term ‘appreciable’.

Unlike the term ‘appreciable’ which has been given restricted to certain circumstances, the phrase ‘effects on competition’ has to be judged with reference to the market share in the relevant market and thus it becomes an important task to define ‘relevant market’. In the present context, the mammoth task was attempted by both NRAI and Zomato/Swiggy giving narrow and wider interpretations respectively. But in this aspect, it is safe to accept       the position of CCI to simply refer Zomato/Swiggy as online intermediaries for food ordering and delivery.

Zomato and Swiggy are the biggest food delivery platforms in India, who conjointly holds      90-95% of the Indian food delivery business. Further, as on January 2022, the market valuation of      these giants stood at $5.3 billion and $10.7 billion respectively which shows the dominant position enjoyed by them, which is also prima facie evident by the circumstances of the case.

Bad news for consumers? Highlighting the significance of ‘Public Interest’

While the economies of scale can be achieved with the reasonable commissions and the reduced costs will benefit the customers in the form of higher quality and lower prices, exorbitant prices will instead result in the reduction of the profits. The impact of such losses will then be passed down to the ultimate customers, thus having a negative effect on the consumers and RPs. Hence, the unilateral act of charging high commissions without any formal communication to the RPs hurts the interests of the general public and also takes away the ability of RPs to compete independently if they come out of the contract.

In light of the above, the public interest test cannot be ignored while considering the economic consequences the AAEC may cause. Therefore as indicated in Standard Oil Co. v. United States, the factor of AAEC operates on the prejudice of the public interests. Public interest in this sense is the first consideration before the courts while considering the validity of the agreements under Section 3 of the Act. Moreover, Section 19(3) of the Act which provides for factors determining AAEC under Section 3 gives due regard to the accrual of benefits to the customers.

However, the term ‘public interest’ has to be constructed from a wider perspective with respect to the circumstances of every case. This proposition was made clearer in Haridas Exports v. All India Float Glass Manufacturers Association, where the Apex court clarified that public interest does not necessarily mean interest of the industry but due regard has also to be given to all possible customers in the market for ensuring that the law achieves its objective of fair competition and public justice. 


Unilateral fixing of commission rates by the players like Zomato and Swiggy who enjoy a dominant position in the food delivery market in India has been declared by the CCI to be not anti-competitive. However, such narrow application of Section 3 of the competition act influenced by the provisions of contract laws of the country does more harm than good and has the potential to defeat the object of the competition laws. In such scenario, the importance of AAEC factor and test of ‘public interest’ should be relied upon to secure fair competition in the market as well as the interests of both the producers and the customers. While the decision has huge ramifications, one can only hope that the position is rectified in the subsequent decisions.

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