The pollen (in reality, unfertilised seed) of Russian poplar trees is not a health hazard and causes far less allergies than even house dust and pine cones; simple pruning the canopy would reduce the pollen, but felling the trees will be a disaster both for the ecology and the economy of Kashmir
Jauhar Rafeeq & Tanveer Ahmad
It is unfortunate that the J&K government had started a war against poplar trees without taking opinion of experts. Lakhs of poplar trees are being chopped in Kashmir on the mistaken belief that these trees are causing allergies. There are about 16 million poplar trees in Kashmir and they are the fastest growing tree species in the valley. The trees provide income of Rs 9,000 to Rs 15, 000 per tree with a short rotation cycle of 7 to 8 years. The poplar is the back bone of the economic activities associated with trees in Kashmir.
Misinformation regarding poplars
The name “Russian Poplar” is a misnomer and has nothing to do with Russia. This variety was introduced in Kashmir in 1982 from the US. Locally called as Russi Frass, the species takes less time (10-15 years) to grow, as compared to the Kashmiri poplar that takes 30-40 years. There is a myth that the pollen (in reality, unfertilised seed) of the Russian Poplar causes allergies. This is totally baseless. As per studies conducted by Government Medical College Srinagar and SKIMS Soura, and several scientists, the pollen of poplars can cause allergic reactions in less than 20 percent of people. Compared to this, pollen from pine and some grass species can cause allergic reactions in 62.7 percent of people while the pollen from Chinar trees can cause allergic reactions in 60 percent of the population. Does this mean we shall fell all these trees? If we cannot bear the pollen season that lasts for just 15 days, how can we expect trees to bear us for long?
High Court orders to chop poplars
In 2014, the Jammu Kashmir High Court banned the sale, purchase and plantation of female Russian poplars. In May 2015, the High Court directed all Deputy Commissioners and Tehsildars in Kashmir to implement orders on chopping down Russian poplars all across Kashmir. The decision was taken by the court in view of health hazards caused by the Russian poplars. The High Court specified that the Tehsildars would be personally responsible for ensuring compliance of orders passed by the Deputy Commissioners for removal of Russian poplars.
“It is common knowledge that the pollen seed of poplars is adversely affecting health of general public, mostly of elderly people and children. The pollen seed of these trees has given rise to chest diseases in Kashmir, which can become life threatening for them,” the court observed. 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.”
Following the HC order, lakhs of Russian poplar trees were chopped down in Kashmir. The H&K Government informed the High Court that nearly two lakh Russian poplar trees had been cut down in south Kashmir districts during the year 2017-2018. The District Magistrate of Anantnag further gave an undertaking that about 1 lakh Russian poplars would be chopped down in the district in a month. Throughout north and south Kashmir, Russian poplars were sawed and slaughtered on the orders of the government. The trees that had enhanced the beauty of Kashmir for close to 40 years started being felled everywhere – beside the highway, across the fields, in rural Kashmir and in urban Kashmir. Anantnag, Budgam, Baramulla, Shopian, Kupwara, the list went on. The High Court termed the trees as “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 significant allergies. Scientists from diverse fields are alarmed by the indiscriminate and unjustified felling of the Russian poplars. Experts believe that “such large-scale felling will turn Kashmir into a desert.”
On June 24, environment experts, scientists, academicians, legal experts and others participated in Srinagar in a panel discussion on “Poplar Tree Felling: Allergy Respite or Ecological Disaster?” The panel discussion was organized by Mantaqi Center for Science and Society. Experts and participants from diverse fields pledged to save Kashmir from the “environmental catastrophe of poplar felling”. Dr Mushtaq Siddiqi, Vice-Chancellor of Islamic University of Science and Technology, said, “We will use legal recourse and contest the order that calls for mass felling of poplar trees.” Dr Siddiqi said 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.
A study titled ‘Role of Skin Prick Tests in Allergic Disorders’ was published in Indian Journal of Immunology. The study results stated that a majority of people (54 percent) were allergic to the pollen from a common “carrot grass” that grows as an invading weed on roadsides and in fields and lawns, and that people were more allergic to dust than to pollen of polar trees. Studies conducted by Dr Naveed Nazir Shah, Head of Department of Pulmonary Medicine at Government Medical College Srinagar, shows that 92 percent people are allergic to house 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 pollen. According to Dr TH Masoodi, Dean, Faculty of Forestry at 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 says.
In the year 2018, Faculty of Forestry at SKUAST-K debated utility of poplar cultivation in Kashmir valley. A brainstorming session was organised by the faculty whose Principal Investigator was Dr JA Mugloo, Senior Scientist at Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K. Medical experts, scientists from the Faculty of Forestry, experts from Forest department, and legal experts were all of the opinion that poplar unfertilised seeds are not allergy-causing in nature. As per Dr JA Mughloo, there is only a management problem of poplars in Kashmir. As per him, removing of 60%-70% of canopy will reduce pollen shedding of these trees to the maximum. As per Dr SA 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.
Benefits of poplars
Poplars are one of the most important tree species of Kashmir. They have many benefits, like revenue generation, carbon sequestration, uses in fruit industry, phyto remediation, ecological waste water treatment systems, stream bank stabilisation, soil building, bio filtration, soil erosion control, etc. We should not underestimate the importance of poplars in terms of environment cleaning and economical value. There is enough research available which suggests that poplar unfertilised seeds are not allergy-causing. Felling of poplars will prove fatal for Kashmir both ecologically and economically. It is most tragic that lakhs of Russian poplars are being chopped on the orders of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, based on the wrong perception that these trees are a severe health hazard.
The writers are PhD scholars at Faculty of Forestry, SKUAST-K.