How misinformation and rumours made Russian poplar trees surprise victims of Covid-19 in Kashmir

Affan Yesvi
Affan YesviApr 20, 2020 | 12:27

How misinformation and rumours made Russian poplar trees surprise victims of Covid-19 in Kashmir

The trees were planted to generate employment for the rural poor and improve environmental conditions.

The female variety of Russian poplar trees has turned out to be the surprise victim of Covid-19 in Kashmir. Over the past 15 days, thousands of poplar trees, also known as Russian poplar, have been axed in the Valley over fears that the pollen generated by them can act as a carrier of coronavirus.

As fears over the Covid-19 pandemic mounted in Kashmir Valley, the government ordered the axing of poplar trees. The government order on the subject, issued April 2, stated, "A meeting held under the chairmanship of Pandurang K Pole, IAS, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir on April 2, 2020, to discuss the pollen-related infections in the wake of already spread of Covid-19 [sic] to work out the strategy and measures to get rid of this menace before the onset of flowering season Female Russian Poplar trees 42,000 trees need to be felled down in order to get rid of the menace of the pollen-bearing by this specie."

poplar_042020115043.jpgPoplar trees worth lakhs of rupees have been felled. (Photo: Reuters)

According to press statements issued by the Department of Information and Public Relations, deputy commissioners of various districts in the Valley ordered the axing of poplars. The fear of coronavirus runs so deep that over the past two weeks, Kashmiris employed labourers to cut down trees worth lakhs of rupees.

Kashmir is home to about 20 million poplar trees. In 2015, the poplars were axed in large numbers over fears that their pollen causes respiratory ailments. Botanists in the region have repeatedly stated that the poplar trees do not trigger respiratory ailments and that it is wrong to link them to the transmission of Covid-19.

The indiscriminate felling that started about a fortnight ago stopped after the Jammu and Kashmir High Court stayed the government order to cut the female poplar trees. The High Court has directed the Chief Secretary to constitute a committee to examine the matter within four days. The court has directed that the panel must include experts on trees, medicine, respiratory diseases and other subjects relevant to the issue.

The committee shall examine the impact of the pollen and fluff from the poplar trees, the desirability of axing these trees and other associated issues. But reports state that despite the stay order, the trees continue to be axed in most parts of the Valley. There are reports that labourers are being sent out almost daily to people’s orchards and fertile fields to axe the poplars.

It is feared that the felling of Russian poplars may impact the livelihoods of thousands of people in rural areas. Industry worth Rs 800 crore approximately is dependent on the timber of the poplars. The timber of these trees is used to make crates, in which apples are transported from the Valley.

Mehraj-ud-Din Malik, Joint Director of the Social Forestry Department, said that over the last few years, rumours have been swirling in Kashmir that the cotton tufts released by the trees cause respiratory problems. Malik said it is tragic that people should choose to cut down thousands of trees on the basis of such rumours, without any scientific investigation. The blind felling of full-grown trees could lead to an environmental catastrophe, he said. People who were prone to spring-time allergies could wear masks for two weeks instead of supporting the axing of healthy trees, he emphasised.

Botanists have suggested that simple pruning of the trees' canopy can reduce the shedding of seeds. No scientific study in the Valley has established that the female poplars cause major allergies or respiratory problems. Trees of Chinar and various flowering plants bloom during springtime and release pollen.

Russian poplars can be seen all over Kashmir Valley. They grow up to a height of 40 feet approximately. These trees were planted in Kashmir in the early 1980s as part of a Social Forestry Project initiated by the state government and aided by the World Bank. The aim of the project was to generate employment for the rural poor and improve environmental conditions through plantations that provide timber and fuel wood.

Rumours and misinformation have cost people heavily during the Covid-19 crisis. The felling of poplar is among the cost people and the environment have had to pay.

Last updated: April 20, 2020 | 12:27
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