Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last Sunday that his country’s annual growth target has been lowered to seven percent for the next five years. He made this remark in an on-line chat with the nation. “We must no longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid economic growth as that is unsustainable,” he said. He urged the government to shift its focus from GDP growth to the quality and benefits of growth.

Premier Wen’s statement comes in the wake of huge concerns in the West over the impact of China’s and India’s economic growth on the global environment. China's GDP growth reached 10.3 percent last year and is expected to be nine percent this year. Although he was talking to his netizens, Wen’s message was aimed at his critics in the West.

On the face of it the Chinese premier’s remarks appear to be eminently sensible and responsible. For who could be against protecting nature? But is Premier Wen right to slow down the growth rate of a poor nation? I do not think so. I believe India and China can grow rapidly and protect the environment at the same time.

There is a saying that a woman can either be beautiful or faithful but not both. The proverb illustrates the human tendency to create boxes in the mind and then try to fit people into them. Wen appears to have fallen into the same mental trap in believing that you can either have high growth or a clean environment. We in India will also soon be asked by the same Western environmentalists that if China is taking steps to lower its growth rate, why is India still obsessed with high growth? Indeed, the day after Wen’s online chat, India’s finance minister Pranab Mukherjee presented a road map in the Indian government’s annual budget to achieve a 9% GDP growth rate, but he expressed a hope that that the growth it might go higher.

The truth is that the dichotomy between high growth and protecting the environment is false. A nation can do both—it can grow rapidly and save its environment just as a woman can be both beautiful and faithful. The only sensible way to grow, in fact, is to make peace with nature and save the green-blue film on which life itself depends. But to ask a poor country to slow down its economic growth is immoral—it is to condemn its poor to poverty. The history of the past two hundred years teaches us that the poor will only be able rise into the middle class unless there is economic growth. Growth creates jobs and wealth in an economy. The government taxes the wealth and spends it on, for example, education and healthcare. Access to jobs, education and health enable the poor to rise. Indeed, 350 million Chinese and 225 million Indians have risen out of poverty in the past 25 years because of high growth.

Once upon a time I used to be a big supporter of the environmental movement, but I feel unhappy with environmental activists today. I am upset that so many fine projects have suffered from endless delays because of their protests.  They have challenged almost every single power plant or major industrial project coming up in India. No one has calculated the real cost of the either delay or of the scrapping of a project. The real penalty is paid by the poor. The real cost is the lost future of a starving child who will not realise his or her dream when a factory or power plant does not come up. The environment movement has evolved into an anti-science, anti-growth, secular religion. I shudder to think that if these activists had been around in the 1960s, they would have killed India’s ‘green revolution’. The green revolution has contributed to a six-fold increase in wheat production and a three-fold increase in rice production and this great transformation has fed 50 crore additional Indian mouths. Environmentalist activists protested even in the 1960s but the government did not listen to them.

Meanwhile in the past few decades, bureaucrats and politicians in India have captured ecology movement and have made into a lucrative business. Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complained in 2009. “Environmental clearances have become a new form of Licence Raj and corruption,” he said. Hence, I was delighted when the UPA II government appointed Jairam Ramesh, a clean, modern minister in 2009. But my happiness changed quickly to sorrow because Ramesh became an environmental activist and began to re-open major projects, such as Niyamgiri, Lavasa and POSCO, and proceeded to “make an example” of them. His arbitrary rulings resounded around the world, turned investor sentiment against India, and hurt our country.  The Reserve Bank reported recently that India’s foreign direct investment declined by 36% in the first half of 2010-11 primarily because of “environment policies in mining, integrated township projects and ports.” Of course, we want the environment ministry to ensure that industrial projects meet the best environmental standards. But these standards should be achieved through transparent rules and by creating transparent institutions and not through arbitrary acts of ministers.

All of us must become sensitive to nature, especially with the rapid degradation of forest cover and global warming. But we must also be aware of the religious fundamentalist and irrational nature of the ecology movement, which is willing to sacrifice human opportunities to preserving nature. Environmentalists have nostalgia for vanishing, old lifestyles. They refuse to admit that their earlier predictions of the disaster of population growth have turned out to be wrong. Despite massive population growth in the world, people around the world are better off today, and as prosperity and education spreads, population growth has begun to slow down on its own in most countries.  Obviously, we have to protect nature, but if it does come to a choice, human beings, I think, must precede nature. To believe the contrary is not only elitist but also immoral.