Shedding fluffy cotton-like seeds in the spring season, the Female Russian poplar, with botanical name Populus deltoids, is a tree that dots the river banks, highways, and roadsides in Kashmir. It is estimated that there are 15-20 million Russian poplars thriving on the soil of Kashmir. The species has a rapid growth rate. In 10-15 years the tree grows to its full size. The Kashmiri poplar, in comparison, takes 30-40 years to grow to its full size. The Russian poplar species was introduced in Kashmir in 1982 under a World Bank-aided social forestry initiative.
People all around the globe are grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and so are the people in Kashmir. But here, in Kashmir, a queer and unscientific way is being followed to combat the pandemic. On 3 April 2020, the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, Pandurang K Pole, ordered the cutting down of Female Russian poplars within a week on any land that is within 500 metres of human habitation. It is believed that the fluffy seeds are responsible for respiratory diseases, and that the pollen may carry the cooronavirus with it, wreaking havoc on people.
According to research carried out by Government Medical College, Srinagar, common dust is the main cause of respiratory diseases or allergies, in as much as 92.7% of the population of Kashmir. Among the allergy-causing pollen grains in Kashmir, the pollen of grass and of pine and Chinar trees is at the top of the list. The research revealed that the common grass causes allergy in 73.5% of population during the spring season in Kashmir. Pollen from pine trees is responsible for allergic reactions in 62.7% population, pollen from Chinar trees in 60% of population, and less than 20% of people have allergic reactions due to the pollen of Russian poplars. Without considering this research, and several other studies that have reached the same conclusion, poplars are being cut down or pruned in the whole valley. The cutting down of Russian poplars will have adverse effects on both the environment and economy of Kashmir. It is equivalent to giving an invitation to natural hazards. Lockdowns have somewhat controlled the spread of coronavirus but there is no measure to control such invited natural hazards.
In Kashmir the Russian poplars when harvested are widely used for making boxes for packing of apples and other fruits. They are used for making pencils and matchboxes and their high-quality wood is used in plywood manufacturing. The Russian poplars bind the soil with their extensive roots, which prevents soil erosion along rivers and on hillsides. If they are removed from river banks, more and more silt and sand will accumulate in the riverbed. During incessant rains, the rivers will overflow their banks and cause flooding. The presence of Russian poplars makes the infiltration (penetration of water into the ground) dominant when it rains. A good percentage of water percolates down the ground and adds to the groundwater. The felling of Russian poplars will leave the overland flow unhindered, with the result that the water level of drains and streams will increase and finally the embankments will be breached, leading to inundation of roads and alleys.
Attaining heights of 30-40 feet, Russian poplars are also used as ‘windbreak’ or ‘shelterbelt’ in agriculture fields to prevent soil erosion. The ‘windbreak’ also provides a shield to the farm from the traffic on the road. It also provides a safe barrier between the farm animals and the road.
The administration’s order to cut down Female Russian poplars should be immediately revoked.