Poplar Trade-off

The administration has started felling the female poplars in the Valley following reports that the pollen produced by them can aggravate the ongoing outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a fear that their pollen could carry the coronavirus. Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, P K Pole has ordered that all poplars within 500 metres of the habitations should be felled within ten days. In South Kashmir, people have been asked to cut their poplars on their own or face action. Government has threatened to file an FIR against those who disobey the order. The authorities will later fell these trees and auction them on their own. It is a challenging job as there are an estimated 20 million poplars all across the Valley and their population is growing every year.

Considering the allergies the poplars trigger in the Valley during May, their felling seems to be a legitimate action. In fact, earlier in June 2015, the High Court had observed that it was a “common knowledge that pollen seeds of poplars of Russian species adversely affect health of the general public, mostly of elderly people and children,” adding that the pollen seeds of these trees had given rise to chest diseases in the valley. The court had thus ordered the non-native poplar’s eradication from Kashmir. But as things turned out the order was largely observed in breach.

However, while sections of public opinion will welcome the government’s decisive move this time round, the growth of female poplars, also called the Russian poplar has an economic dimension that cannot be ignored. Russian poplars were introduced in Kashmir in 1982 as part of the Social Forestry Scheme. The reason for this was that it takes less than 15 years to mature as compared to 40 years for the Kashmiri poplar. So, it is considered quite lucrative in the timber trade.

Every year as the spring arrives in the Valley and the Russian poplars start pollinating and release their cotton fluff into the air, thousands of people are taken ill. People are afflicted with allergies with symptoms ranging from congestion, runny or itchy nose, sneezing etc, the same ones now associated with COVID-19. The elderly and children are more prone to the infection. This leads to a substantial rise in the number of patients visiting hospitals which in turn leads to a spike in the sale of the anti-allergic medicines. An estimate puts the increase in sales at 25 percent. At least 45 registered and many unregistered pharmaceutical companies reportedly sell such drugs under different brands, at different prices. This has created an entrenched vested interest around the Russian poplars which works against their eradication.

It is time that the government acts tough and works to eradicate the menace of Russian poplars in the Valley. But at the same time the government should ensure that only the trees near habitations are axed and not those grown in fields. It has to be a balanced trade-off between health and economy.

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