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The war on COVID—19 is turning into a war on poplar trees in Kashmir

3 mins read

by Manzoor Wani

Doctors feel the government should reconsider its decision to cut down the trees…

Kashmiri calls as Russi Frass, the variety of poplar trees was introduced in Kashmir in 1982 from the US under a Word Bank-aided social forestry scheme. The project aimed to “generate livelihood for the rural poor and improve environmental conditions” through plantations that provide fuelwood and small timber.

The trees originated in North America but came to be known locally as Russi Frass (Russian poplar). In a matter of years, they became an important part of the landscape in Kashmir.

The species takes less time (10-12 years) to grow, as compared to the Kashmir poplar that takes 30-40 years. Due to their high yield, poplars are intensively used in the timber and construction industry.

According to official figures, there are about 18-20 million Russian poplar trees in the Kashmir division. Different parts of Kashmir especially South Kashmir’s Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama districts have nurseries to grow them. It is not clear how many are to be chopped over the next week.

Reason: the spread of the coronavirus in Kashmir. The “pollen of said trees,” said one government order, “create influenza like infections which may create unnecessary panic among the general public”.

The Usual Suspect

The tall, narrow poplar trees have become common to the Kashmir Valley, guarding fields and lining highways. In April every year, the tree sheds cotton-like balls which float on the breeze and blanket every available surface. It is also in late April and early May that the number of allergies shoot up.

Many, including the government, have attributed the yearly spike in allergies to the Russian female poplar tree.
But doctors and environmental experts in Kashmir think otherwise.

“Every tree sheds pollen be it poplar, kikar or deodar,” said a senior specialist of pulmonary medicine in Srinagar who did not want to be named. “But sadly, it’s the Russian female poplar which has earned a bad name for itself.”

The white, cotton-like substance shed by the tree was popularly mistaken for pollen when it actually contained seeds.

“The reality is that the pollen shed by a Russian poplar tree, like every other tree, is invisible to the naked eye,” specialist explained.

Pollen grains are the male fertilising agents of seed-bearing trees which need to land on a female cone of the same species for a seed to be produced.

The specialist also disagreed with the notion that the pollen of Russian poplars was responsible for the surge of respiratory allergies. “This is not primarily or secondarily responsible. All I can say is that it’s one of the many reasons,” he added.

Another doctor, who is an assistant professor at the department of medicine in Government Medical College, Srinagar, said the major cause of respiratory allergies in Kashmir was house dust.

“There’s no doubt that spring is the key time for allergies,” he elaborated. “That means we have to be scientific about everything but we are not. According to studies, the commonest allergen pollen in Kashmir is grass, followed by kikar trees. Only 18% of allergen pollen comes from Russian poplar trees.”

Overlapping Symptoms

Doctors feel the government should reconsider its decision to cut down the trees. The specialist of pulmonary medicine thought the government might have been prompted to pronounce its sentence on the Russian poplars because Covid-19 and respiratory allergies have “overlapping symptoms”.

“Allergic symptoms are almost the same as COVID-19 except for the fever and body aches, he explained. “At the same time, COVID-19 has varieties.”

SA Gangoo, professor and head of the forest products and utilisation department at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Srinagar, strongly felt it was the wrong decision.

“It’s not a good idea. When it’s not bad for the rest of the world, how’s it bad for us?” he asked. “The best way to prevent the shedding of cotton from these trees is through lopping. If we are able to lop the tree up to 80% of its height from the third year of its plantation, it will produce less cotton without any impact on its growth.”

He also pointed out that the United Nation’s International Poplar Commission recommends that the tree be planted to help with livelihoods and industrial development.

Manzoor Wani is a student of Forestry at India’s Dr. BR Ambedkar University Agra. He can be reached at: manzoornabi57@gmail.com

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