There was a public perception, not long ago, that market scheming and price manoeuvring by syndicates could be largely contained had there been a Competition Law and a designated agency in the country to monitor market situation and enforce measures against unfair market practices. With the Competition Law enacted in 2012 and the Competition Commission set up subsequently, things seemed to be moving in the desired direction.
It has been quite a while. Although the Law and the Commission are in place, their presence can hardly be felt. The Competition Commission, though officially launched, is non-functional as of now, and no one seems to know how long it will take to get going. This newspaper published editorials and post-editorials soon after the government decided to set up this highly important organisation -- welcoming the move but not without a note of warning about the preparations required to get along with the task ahead.
It got reported in the newspapers that the government at long last has only been able to appoint a chairman of the Commission, but there is no organogram as yet to recruit officials and required support staff. The funds made available to run the organisation is also reportedly meagre. These are clear indications to suggest a lack of understanding of the importance of an entity that, if equipped properly, can bring harmony and coherence in market forces-- to the relief of the consumers.
The very idea prompting enactment of competition laws and a commission is one and the same across the globe in that the purpose is to eliminate practices having adverse effect on competition, promote and sustain competition, protect the interests of consumers and ensure freedom of trade in the markets. While curbing syndicated monopoly in times of sudden fluctuation in prices of commodities is a key mandated activity of competition commissions the world over, the main tools required are human and related resources to effectively prevail upon the situation. It is here that the commission assumes the role of a watchdog.
The commission is also required to give opinion on competition issues received in reference from other agencies established under law and to undertake competition advocacy, create public awareness and impart training on competition issues. The Indian Supreme Court in response to a civil appeal in 2010 clearly spelt out the role and functions of the Competition Commission in India that may be applicable in most countries, including ours. According to the judgment, the main objective is "to promote economic efficiency using competition as one of the means of assisting the creation of market responsive to consumer needs and preferences. The advantages of perfect competition are three-fold: allocative efficiency which ensures the effective allocation of resources, productive efficiency which ensures that costs of production are kept at a minimum, and dynamic efficiency which promotes innovative practices."
In Bangladesh, during the past two decades or so, flagrant violation of basic business ethics in the form of hoarding, black marketing and so on by cartels and notorious syndicates have plagued the marketplace with serious distortions that more than necessitated a legally recognised system to tackle the situation. With the Covid-19 still persistent and the Russia-Ukraine war causing some disruptions to supply chain of some essentials like fuel and wheat, there are clear indications that foul play by unscrupulous elements in the country are at work to cash in on the situation, mostly through hoarding and creating artificial scarcity in consumer product market all over the country. Clearly, the one state agency --Competition Commission -- mandated to prevail on the situation is far from doing the needful. This, it appears, is due mainly to the lack of resources -- human and technical -- coupled with well calculated plans. Mere setting up of the Competition Commission is thus of no use unless it is equipped with the tools and mechanism required for accomplishing what it is meant to do.
For its functional purposes, the Commission is required to frame rules, policies, administrative scope and set up mechanisms for conducting enquiries on receipt of complaints, devising procedures for preliminary determination of anti-competitive behaviour and take penal action upon final and conclusive determination through public hearing or whatever is deemed appropriate. For this, one of the key requirements is a group of legal and trade experts. The job is challenging in as much as it entails understanding and forecasting market conditions under different circumstances - domestic as well as global - and the way they tell upon the consumers on the one hand and on the market players, on the other.
This calls for, besides effective market monitoring, developing and nurturing relations and interactions with sectoral regulators to ensure smooth alignment of sectoral regulatory laws in strict conformity with the competition law. In pursuing the path, a Commission can be expected to perform competition advocacy and spread information on benefits of competition among all stakeholders to establish and nurture a healthy competition culture in the economy.