11/07/2016 1:31 PM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:44 PM IST

How A Few Sneezes Blew Away Lakhs Of Russian Poplars

A mass slaughter of trees is happening in Kashmir.

Lakhs of Russian poplars are being chopped in Kashmir on the order of the J&K High Court, based on the wrong perception that these trees are a severe health hazard for the region.

Kashmir has about 16-20 million Russian poplars, and for many years now they have lined the long, scenic roads in urban and rural parts of the Valley. Kashmiri farmers started favouring Russian poplars over local varieties in the last few decades, as these trees grow and mature faster, attaining a height of 20-30ft. They are a cash crop, with the wood being sold for construction, handicrafts and to make fruit boxes (the flourishing fruit industry of Kashmir has a requirement of 8-10 lakh boxes for produce per annum which makes this a lucrative business).

So, why are these trees the target of such ire? Over the last few years, the Kashmiri media has persisted in furthering the theory that pollen from Russian poplars has "invaded" the Valley, triggering allergies, respiratory conditions and hay fever. Steadily, this led to a build-up of negative sentiments against the trees, to the extent that in may 2013, the J&K government banned further plantation of Russian poplars in Kashmir. It didn't end there. In 2014, the J&K High Court banned the sale, purchase and plantation of female Russian poplars.

Forest, environment and medical experts have discovered that the much-abused Russian poplar trees are not responsible in any significant way for allergies...

Then in May 2015, the same court directed the government to implement its order to chop down Russian poplars across the Valley, claiming:

"It is a common knowledge that 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 menace of Poplar trees of Russian species has caused havoc with health of people."

Following the HC order for the "removal of nuisance", lakhs of Russian poplars were felled in Kashmir -- nearly 2 lakh in Kulgam district alone, for example. Through north and south Kashmir, Russian poplars were sawed and slaughtered.

But here's the twist in the tale: all of this may have been for no purpose whatsoever.

Forest, environment and medical experts in Kashmir have discovered that the much-abused Russian poplar trees are not responsible in any significant way for allergies. Doctors and agricultural experts have now pledged to save Kashmir from this "environmental catastrophe", with some fearing that the mass felling of trees will dangerously reduce the Valley's green cover.

A study at Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) found that Kashmiris were most allergic to dust. Russian Poplars were ranked at number six as a cause of allergy. Finally, Kashmir is beginning to realize how much devastation an unfounded media campaign has caused. Dr. Tariq Masoodi of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKAUST-K) blamed the Kashmir media for creating a fear psychosis about poplars. "Using terms like 'menace', 'unpopular', 'nuisance' and 'mess' has created a perception that makes people think that the tree is responsible for all their miseries," he said.

Experts say that simple pruning was enough to deal with the pollen shed by these trees.

Experts say that simple pruning was enough to deal with the pollen shed by these trees.

After lakhs of Russian Poplar trees have been felled, Manzoor Ahmed Tak, Conservator of Forests in Kashmir is pleading for a turnaround. A sneeze here and there, he says, is no reason to cause ecological and environmental degradation. The trees are also essential to the local economy and eradicating them would affect livelihoods and also put an additional burden on forests.

There is an urgent need to dispel the myths that have led to the systematic felling of Russian poplars and at least reverse some of the damage wrought by the high court's "misinformed decision."