SHOPIAN: The ongoing poplar cotton menace in the Kashmir valley has created immense problems for people here. With the onset of spring, cotton fiber produced by Russian poplars (the cotton tree found in America’s east) causes multiple allergies, such as nose and chest infections, eye allergies and skin rashes, and has hence become a major cause of pollution.
Experts from the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKAUST) opine that the cotton menace is not due to the proliferation of the trees but has happened owing to mismanagement and lack of facilities here.
Dr Parvaiz Ahmad Sofi, a senior scientist from SKAUST, is one expert who holds the government’s poor awareness and mismanagement responsible for the health problems the tree generates.
“Through awareness, government can make people aware of the need to go for branch trashing (branch cutting). There would be an 80 percent decline in the cotton menace by doing so,” Sofi said.
The scientist from the varsity’s Forestry faculty also denied that the Russian poplar is a Russian breed but said it is actually an American breed, “It is famous as the eastern cotton wood, grown in the eastern part of America, but some people have wrongly introduced its name as Russian poplar,” Sofi said.
Sofi added that the High Court ban on the poplars was imposed without expert consultation. “If the High Court had consulted us, we would not have let them pass such an order. There is 95 percent population of female trees in the Valley, and only female ones produce cotton as male ones are very rare,” he said.
In June 2015, the HC passed an order to fell all females of this particular poplar species. Rampant chopping and a divisional administration ban on its further plantation followed. The ban affected people who earn their livelihood from the trade and plantation of this tree.
More than 1.5 crore of these poplars are grown in the Valley. After 12 to 15 years, the tree goes into its reproductive phase and hence it then produces a cottony wilt. Only female trees cause these seeds, Sofi added.
“After the judgment of the High Court, we were forced to change our research programme. The Faculty of Forests at SKUAST had identified the male clones of the American breed poplar trees, which have a faster growth than the female ones,” he said.
“In March this year, during a Kissan Mela, we put forward some of these male poplar trees for the farmers. Now it is the duty of the government to produce these clones. Our work was to research, test, produce and multiply them. Last year we distributed new poplar trees among people and we have around 10,000 trees which would be distributed next year,” he said, adding that his department’s job is not to produce trees for commercial purposes but to identify and carry out research on them.
“The new male clones of poplar are better than the traditional one. It will fetch more gains to the cultivators and has no issues of cotton,” he said.
He said Haryana and Punjab have about eight crore such trees but there is no infection hazard because they axe the trees before they go into their reproductive phase. “The problem prevails only in Kashmir as these trees exist in different parts of the world as well as in India. They have proper industries of plywood, paper, matchsticks and furniture because they cut down these trees before they go into reproductive age. But we don’t have any such kind of proper management or industrial setup in the Valley,” Sofi said, while adding that if the government has no management, they should admit it rather than playing with the bread of people.
He said that Kashmiris nurse poplar trees even for 50 years when they were meant to be axed within 12 to 15 years. “There is no good market for poplar wood. This is the reason for the menacing dimensions the cotton they produce is now assuming; that is why we are facing such kinds of cottonwood problems,” he said.
He added that the ban on plantation should be people-friendly. Though the HC has ordered the chopping of the female poplar, he said, they must know that 70 percent of the rural population is dependent on its cultivation.
Currently there is a poplar-cotton mess throughout the Valley and mostly in rural areas. According to doctors, the polar cotton can cause eye and chest infections and skin rashes among people prone to them. Dr Bashir Ahmad advises people to use masks in order to save themselves from this menace.