COVID-19 takes a toll on Kashmir’s female poplar trees

Tens of thousands of female poplars will become victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Kashmir valley, after fears that the pollen generated by the trees during the spring season could become carriers of the coronavirus.

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“Pollen of poplar trees remain in the air for between 25 to 30 days and create havoc for humans with respiratory diseases. It [the pollen] has the potential to hold the COVID-19 virus and result in aggravation of the spread of the infection as well,” lawyer Shafqat Nazir said in a public interest litigation.

The J&K High Court has directed all Deputy Commissioners in Kashmir to cut the trees.

‘Within ten days’

Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, P.K. Pole has ordered that all female poplar trees within 500 metres of habitations “should be felled in ten days”.

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Unofficial estimates suggest Kashmir is home to over 15 million such trees. They dot all the highways, urban and rural pockets in Kashmir. Several environmentalists have warned of dire consequences if the trees are cut.

In several orders issued by Deputy Commissioners in south Kashmir’s Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam, locals have been asked to axe trees or face action. “In case locals fail to comply by the orders, a First Information Report (FIR) report will be lodged against them. The authorities will later cut and auction such trees on their own,” reads an order issued in Kulgam on Monday.

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Poplars have been part of Kashmir’s picturesque landscape. Many Bollywood songs have been shot against their majestic backdrop.

Economic value

Attaining a height of 30 to 40 feet, Russian poplars, with the botanical name Populus deltoids, is a female variety of the tree species introduced in 1982 from the United States. It has huge economical value because it grows in just 10-15 years, compared with local species. It is used for scaffolding, boxing of fruits and in roofing. A study shows only 26 of 46 poplar species cause allergies.

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“Among allergy-causing pollen in Kashmir, pine and chinar trees top the list. It would require more research to prove it’s just pollen of poplars that is a health hazard,” said a doctor at the Government Medical College, Srinagar.

Opinion is split over the felling of the trees. “Mass felling of female poplar trees is without any sound scientific basis and a proper cost-benefit analysis is needed on pollen issues. This [the felling] would harm the environment and economic security of lakhs of farmers,” said Arjimand Hussain Talib, a writer and environmental expert.

‘Huge impact’

Even the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has raised this concern. “It is an economic and ecological disaster, which needs to be averted. Despite lakhs of poplar trees being cut in previous years, the number of allergy cases has not decreased. Although a tree census has not been undertaken, estimates say there are over 15 million poplars in J&K. If we cut 15 million trees, it could have a huge impact on the eco-sensitive zone,” CPI (M) J&K secretary Ghulam Nabi Malik said.

Mr. Malik said the Russian poplar species were introduced by the J&K Social Forestry Department to develop greenery, and cover remaining forest land, river shores, highways and other roadsides in 1980s. “The species, introduced under a World Bank-aided social forestry initiative, now dominates J&K’s skyline. It will impact pencil and plywood manufacturers. Over 30 plywood factories depend on the wood from these trees,” he added.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 10:16:15 AM |

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