Citizens of Kashmir have been facing health problems due to the fluffy cotton seeds shed by poplar trees, also known as Russian poplars. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic aggravated the problems and many people began urging the administration to do something about it. Social media was flooded with posts during the month of March urging the administration to act before the onset of the pollen season. The administration responded with alacrity and orders were issued to cut down “female Russian Poplar trees producing pollen”. The hon’ble J&K High Court had given similar directions in 2015.
The process of felling down of the trees started, and thousands of such trees had already been cut down when the hon’ble HC, responding to various pleas showing concern at the economic and environmental disaster posed by the unabated and mass cutting of the trees, stayed all the previous orders till a concrete policy was devised. The felling of the poplars stopped and the pollen season set in. We now see the fluffy cotton dancing in the air and intruding into every corner of home as well as hearth.
There have been various confusions regarding the threat and allergic potential of the Russian poplar tree since it was introduced in Kashmir valley in 1982 as a part of a World Bank-aided project. Various experts have justified the rapid growth of these trees and have pointed out that the female trees do not produce pollen at all; rather, it is a trait of the male counterpart of the species. Hence, the administrative orders to cut down female poplars are illogical and won’t remove pollen from the air. Some others, supported by scientific observations, suggested that the poplar pollen grains are less allergic as compared to even common grasses. A class of erudite commentators discussed the impact of cutting down the trees on Kashmir’s economy and also the sudden stress on the valley’s environment. All these issues raised do carry a logic, but everything needs to be kept aside when it comes to human health, that too when we are already suffering a serious stress on our health infrastructure.
The world Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”. In light of this definition, the issues raised to prevent the cutting of poplar trees need to be given a second thought.
First, it is a fact that female plants don’t produce pollen. But a mere mistake in terminology took us completely away from what was necessary. We became embroiled in fixing the terminology rather than in fixing the problem. We must understand that the problem was never created by the pollen of the species but by the fluffy seed cover that dropped down from the high canopies and travelled far and wide from its source. With a gentle breeze, the white fluffy cover broke into small bits and entered the human respiratory tract through nose, mouth, and even eyes. Irrespective of whether it causes allergic reaction or not, no one can deny that it has become a major source of stress, irritation, and infuriation.
Second, it is a demonstrated fact that the fluffy seed covers, which are an adaptation for capturing pollen, also capture various other pollen grains produced by other plant species, which do cause allergic reactions. In 2008, a research was published by the Institute of Archaeology at China’s Academy of Social Science, Beijing, in collaboration with University of Vienna, Austria, and University of Calcutta, India, which concluded that a total of 4,469 pollen grains belonging to 46 taxa were found entangled in the seed hair of populous (the genus name of the poplar). Of these, 79.97% pollen grains were of anemophilous taxa (spread through air) besides 20.32% pollen grains of antemophilous (spread through insects). These pollens belonged to species of Acer, Betula, Juglans, Cyperacieae, Juncaceae, Asteraceae, Poaceae and many more that were well known for initiating hypersensitivity reactions. Considering the facts put forth through this piece of research, it becomes irrelevant to discuss the potential of populus pollen in causing allergies in humans.
Third, the impact on economy and sustainable development: how much share does the poplar have in the economy of J&K compared to the economic cost of its ill effect on the health of people? Further, the Russian poplar has not been with us since times immemorial. It was introduced only during the second-last decade of the twentieth century. Sustainable development and environmental impact watchdogs should have been more vigilant then, when the natural habitats of various endemic species were ignored and unabated destruction of such habitats was undertaken in the name of development.
My simple question to those who suggest wearing of masks and other such strategies to do away with this menace is: does it not interfere in the state of our well-being? If it does not, then we should wear masks all the time, even when indoors or when driving a car. The administration has the responsibility to decouple fact from opinion and come up with concrete strategies to deal with the issue of poplar seeds. We have had enough of these masks and cannot afford to solve every problem by wearing masks. These masks should be kept for those who don’t want to be rational and confuse the system with their irrelevant opinions. We want to breathe air that is free from pollution.