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Spare Poplar trees; they do not trouble us

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By Jauhar Rafeeq & Tanveer Ahmad

It is tragic that government had started a war against poplar trees without seeking expert opinion in this regard. Lakhs of poplar trees are being felled in Kashmir, even though these trees do not cause allergies s is mistakenly believed.

There are about 16 million poplar trees in the Valley. Poplar is the only fast growing tree species in the Valley which fetches an income of Rs 9000 to 15000 (per tree) to a farmer every 8-10 years. As such its economic importance for the farmers cannot be overlooked or undermined.

Misinformation  regarding poplars

The name “Russian poplar” is a misnomer and has nothing to do with Russia. This variety of poplar trees was introduced in Kashmir in 1982 from the USA. Locally called as ‘Ruusi Frass’, this variety of poplar takes less time (10-15 years) to grow, as compared to the Kashmir poplar which would take 30-40 years.

It is a myth that pollen (actually unfertilized seed) of the ‘Ruusi Frass’ or ‘Russian poplar’ is allergic in nature. As per thesome studies conducted by the Government Medical College Srinagar, SKIMS Soura and several other scientists,  pollen of poplars can cause allergic reactions in less than 20 percent of people. Compared to this, pollen from pine trees and some grass species can cause allergic reactions in 62.7 percent of population while as pollen from chinar tree is responsible to allergic reactions in 60 percent of population. These studies show that pollen of other tree species are far more allergic than those of poplars. So should we then chop off all these different varieties of trees?

If we cannot bear them for just 15 days¸ that’s the time period for which pollen and hence possible allergies lasts, what makes us humans to think and believe that trees should bear us for our entire life-time? Unfertilized seeds of poplar trees have 0.0001 percent effect on our health.

High Court orders feeling poplars

After this tirade against the Russian poplars reached the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, in 2014, the court imposed a ban on the sale, purchase and plantation of ‘female’ Russian poplars. In May 2015, the Jammu Kashmir High Court directed all Deputy Commissioners and Tehsildars in Kashmir to implement its orders on chopping down Russian poplars all over Kashmir. The decision was taken by the court in view of the health hazards being caused by this variety of poplar trees. The High Court specified that the Tehsildars concerned would be personally responsible for ensuring compliance of orders passed by the Deputy Commissioners, for removal of the Russian poplars across Kashmir.

The court observed that the pollen seed of poplars was adversely affecting the health of general public, mostly of elderly people and children and had given rise to chest diseases in Kashmir, which have become life threatening for any. The District Magistrates were directed to implement the court order without delay, as “the menace of poplar trees of Russian species has caused havoc with health of people.”

Lakhs of poplars chopped

Following the HC order, lakhs of Russian poplar trees were chopped in Kashmir. Jammu & Kashmir government informed the High Court that nearly two lakh Russian poplar trees had been cut down in south Kashmir districts.

In entire Kashmir poplar trees were slaughtered within no time. The trees that had enhanced the beauty of Kashmir for close to 40 years were being felled everywhere – by the highway, across the fields, in rural Kashmir and in urban areas too because the court had ordered that action be taken on immediate basis for the “removal of nuisance”.

Twist in the Tale

Forest, environment and medical experts in Kashmir have discovered that the much-abused Russian poplar trees are not responsible for any allergies as per medical research. Scientists from diverse fields are alarmed by the “indiscriminate and unjustified” felling of the Russian poplars.

Experts say there are approximately 15.22 million poplar trees in Kashmir. They believe that “such large-scale felling of these trees will turn Kashmir into a desert.”

Last year, on June 24, environment experts, scientists, academicians, legal experts and others participated in a panel discussion on ‘Poplar Tree Felling: Allergy Respite or Ecological Disaster?’ The discussion was organized by Mantaqi Center for Science and Society, at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST). At this event, experts and participants from diverse fields pledged to save Kashmir from the “environmental catastrophe” that would ensure by way of largescale felling of poplar trees.

Dr. Mushtaq Siddiqi, Vice-Chancellor of IUST said, “We will use legal course and contest the order that calls for mass felling of poplar trees.” He pointed out that various reports from SKIMS as well as publications in many international journals had made it amply clear that Russian poplar is “not the culprit” or a health hazard for the society.

As per scientific evidences, poplar tree seeds are responsible for zero percent allergies. If these trees are to be chopped off because of their allergy potential, then there is much strong case for culling some other varieties of tress as well, for they pose bigger allergy hazards.

A study titled ‘Role of Skin Prick Tests in Allergic Disorders’. was published in Indian Journal of Immunology. The results of this study stated that a majority of people (54 percent) were allergic to the pollens from a common ‘carrot grass’ that grows as an invading weed on roadsides and in fields and lawns, and that still more people were more allergic to dust.

Studies conducted by one Dr Naveed Nazir Shah, shows that 92 percent people are allergic to household dust, 73 percent to lawn grass, 65 percent to pine tree pollen, 59.3 percent to Chinar tree pollen and 18.2 percent to poplar tree pollens.

According to Dr. T H Masoodi, (Dean, Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K) the pollen of poplar trees is 40 microns in size which makes it invisible to naked eye. “What we see on roads and in air is the seed of the tree and a seed is not an allergen,” he points out.

Experts’ opinions

In the year 2018, Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K debated utility of poplar cultivation in Kashmir Valley. A brainstorming session was organized under the chair of principal investigator was Dr. J A Mugloo, Senior Scientist at Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K. Experts including medical experts, scientists of Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K, and those from the Forest department, legal experts et al were of the opinion that poplar unfertilized seeds are not allergic in nature.

As per Dr J.A Mughloo, there is management problem of poplars in Kashmir. He says removing of 60-70 percent of canopy will greatly reduce pollen shedding of these trees. As per Dr S.A Gangoo, Chief Scientist at Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K, simple pruning is enough to deal with the pollen shed by these trees. Pruning of poplars not only reduces the cotton fluff produced by the tree, but also increases its productivity in terms of tree girth and height.

Conclusion

Poplars are one the most important tree species of Kashmir Valley. They have multiple benefits in terms of revenue generation, carbon sequestration, uses in fruit industry, phyto remediation, ecological waste water treatment systems, stream bank stabilization, soil building, bio filtration, soil erosion control, etc. It is unfortunate that government has started a war against poplar trees without consulting experts. We cannot underestimate the importance of poplars in terms of environment cleaning and economic value. There is enough research available which suggests that unfertilized seeds of poplar are not allergic in nature. Felling of poplars will prove fatal for Valley both ecologically and economically. It is most tragic that lakhs of Russian poplars are being chopped off in Kashmir on the order of Jammu and Kashmir High Court, based on the “wrong perception” that these trees are a severe health hazard for the region.

(Authors are PhD scholars at Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K. They can be reached at jauharparrey93@gmail.com)

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