Article Women & Money

Unpopular poplars

The foreign species has been good for Kashmir's forestry industry, but its effect on human health calls for drastic solutions

The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is in the process of eliminating poplar trees planted in vast numbers across Kashmir Valley, citing the risk to human health and air pollution as reasons. The exotic poplar species, populus deltoides, which gained significant popularity in the valley, is grown on vast areas because of the tree’s fast growth, promising good returns to growers.

Kashmir has been famous for its pine forests, but their depletion during the past six decades made the authorities to look for alternatives. In the past, The pine forests diminished significantly following the government’s forest extraction policy for timber supplies, which ended in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the armed insurgency against Indian rule in the region and counter-insurgency measures, subsequently, saw further depletion of the vast forests. Increases in the human and livestock population, rapid industrialisation and a spurt in developmental activities have also led to loss of the forest cover. The overall degradation of vegetation and soils has now reduced the forest area in Jammu and Kashmir to 19.5%.

To reduce pressure on pine, the Social Forestry Department introduced populus deltoides, or eastern cottonwoods, in 1980s. The species, native to North America, was planted widely in the state, including in the Kashmir valley.

The earlier existing varieties of poplar such as populus alba (white poplar), populus ciliate (Himalayan poplar), populus nigra (black poplar) and populus pamirica (Ladakh poplar) have also taken root in the region. All have a slow growth rate, which makes them useless for cultivation.

Introduction of the species boosted the veneer and ply-based industry in the Kashmir region while its timber, used for fruit-packing boxes, is a cost-efficient option for the horticulture industry, which forms the backbone of the state’s economy. The financial benefits offered by growing poplars helped Kashmiri farmers look to agroforestry as a better means of livelihood.

In recent years, however, people have been raising concern over the increased instance of infections caused by the cotton produced by the poplars. They are complaining of nasal and eye infections caused by the enormous volume of cotton production and are demanding axing these trees to end the problem, which reoccurs every summer.

A top official of the State Forestry Department here, Ishtiyaq Ahmad Tenga, said that there is no exact figure for how many poplars exist in the valley, but rough estimates put the number as 20m. A recent report in a valley-based newspaper pegged the rough estimate at about 16.2m poplar trees in Kashmir valley. It cited a study conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department in collaboration with Forest Survey of India for this estimate. Tenga said that there is no control on the planting of poplars as these are now “mass propagated by private nurseries”. The drawback, he note, is the enormous amount of cotton produced by the female poplars, resulting in the local courts calling for them to be cut down to limit the human hazard.

In May, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court ordered officials to take steps to cut down the poplars across the valley, observing that “these trees are hazardous for human life and adversely affecting the health of people.” It asked the revenue officials to pass the order to cut down the trees. The court also observed that poplar pollen adversely affects the health of the general public, particularly children and elderly people.

The problem is the overabundance of female poplars, grown over the years by a vegetative process in which the farmers take cuttings to raise nurseries. It is the same process as cloning.

“All female poplars produce this cotton, which is dispersed by wind to achieve pollination. These exotic breeds propagate faster, producing the bulk of it mostly during April and May,” Tenga said, acknowledging that poplars have been “a boom for the economy”, mostly in the rural sector. “It significantly reduced the load on the state’s depleting forest cover.”

To reduce cotton production, the SFD had earlier resorted to massive felling, followed by clearing the female poplars raised on government land. Now, the drive is moving to private land.

“It is no easy job,” officials said. “We have been seeking time to clear all such female poplar trees. There have been attacks on revenue officials recently when they went to clear a poplar track on the outskirts of Srinagar.”

The growers say that the ongoing mass felling is causing them losses, while the mass clearance has resulted in significant price fall. Muhamamd Shafi Rah, who procures poplars for farmers, says the rates for poplar timber are falling fast. The government is clearing its stock and now private owners too are clearing the poplar tracks and this is going to hit the sector.

A lawmaker, MY Tarigami-has expressed serious concern over the damage massive felling can have on a rural economy. His estimates peg the damages to the rural economy to around Rs 7,000 Crore. “There is no one to purchase the produce this time from the farmers. Everyone uses allergy as an argument, saying that other pollen-producing trees cause allergies among the public. They suggest heavy pruning of poplar trees annually could control pollution.”

The officials, rather than completely eradicating the species, are now looking at changing the gender of the planted trees as the male trees do not produce allergy-causing cotton, but can be equally fast growing and have other similar characteristics.

“The male poplars do not produce cotton and and they can be as easily mass produced as their female counterparts. The social forestry department is raising male poplars at its nursery in Haran Ganderbal. During this year, we supplied about 2m male plants for propagation across the valley,” Tenga said.

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