NEW DELHI (REUTERS) – Swiss giant Holcim’s India units and more than a dozen other cement manufacturers colluded to raise prices and restrict supplies for years, which included regularly inspecting one another to ensure there was no breach of the agreements, according to a federal antitrust probe.

The investigation arm of the Competition Commission of India (CCI) has held top leadership – chief executive officers or managing directors – of Holcim units ACC and Ambuja, market leader UltraTech Cement and 17 other companies such as Shree Cement and Dalmia Cement liable for antitrust violations.

The investigation report, issued last month and seen by Reuters, is the penultimate but most significant stage of the CCI probe that started in 2019. The report, which is not public, will now be reviewed by CCI’s top three officials who have powers to impose fines and will give companies a last chance to defend themselves.

Potentially, the cement giants could be fined millions of dollars. Together, the 20 companies control more than three-quarters of the over 500 million tonne installed cement capacity in India, the world’s second-largest producer after China.

The report said executives of the companies discussed coordinated price hikes in Zoom calls and in-person meetings at company guest houses, with some officials using personal mail to communicate with rivals. WhatsApp messaging was also extensively used.

One company official’s WhatsApp message cited in the report said a “forum” of companies had agreed to gradually raise cement prices in some regions by five rupees (nine Singapore cents) to 10 rupees. Senior executives, including from Holcim’s ACC and UltraTech Cement, were assigned as the “coordinator” for various states.

“Price will go up in each week by equal amount,” the message said.

The message did not give details but typically, cement is sold in 50kg bags to retail consumers, and the cost is between 350 rupees and 450 rupees per bag depending on the location and grade of cement.

CCI did not respond to a request for comment.

Holcim said in a statement that “the Indian companies are managing this matter responsibly and we expect them to continue to do so accordingly.” ACC, Ambuja and UltraTech Cement declined to comment, while Shree Cement and Dalmia Cement did not respond.

India’s Adani Group, which entered into a proposed US$10.5 billion (S$13.7 billion) deal with Holcim in May to acquire its India businesses, also did not respond.

Cement production is a lucrative business in India’s booming economy, with high demand especially from rural housing and infrastructure companies.

An official at the Pavers and Blocks Manufacturers Association, whose members sell concrete paving blocks, told Reuters that price hikes by cement companies in recent years were coordinated, leaving no scope for cutting costs by switching suppliers.

“We sometimes pass the higher cost to consumers,” said the official, who declined to be named since he does business with the cement companies amounting to 50,000 bags a month and was concerned about reprisals.

Overall, the CCI investigation report concluded that the cement companies colluded in 13 states in eastern and southern India, with more than 50 industry executives involved in “cartelisation” activities in an “extremely organised manner”.