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J&K targets Russian poplars in Covid-19 fight, experts worry about ‘ecological disaster’




Representational photo of Russian poplars in Kashmir
Representational photo of Russian poplars in Kashmir | ANI

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Srinagar: The lakhs of Russian poplar trees in Kashmir have emerged as one of the focus areas of the union territory administration in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving several environmentalists alarmed. 

The female variety of the tree sheds a lot of pollen in April. While there is no proof thus far that pollen can be a Covid-19 carrier, the suggestion that the coronavirus might be air-borne has led the administration to order the “lopping off or felling” of the trees across Kashmir. 

The order, issued last week, has stoked fears that the drive may result in large-scale cutting of the trees — a move that many experts believe will have a huge impact on not just local ecology but also the economy. 

Several local politicians have also come out against the move. Even so, some environmental experts have said the government should do whatever it takes to restrict the spread of Covid-19, which has claimed nearly 80,000 lives around the world.

Also Read: Covid-19 cluster management to geographic quarantine: What govt’s containment plan includes

The Russian poplar

Russian poplar trees, which can grow up to 30-40 feet in height, were introduced in Kashmir in 1981-82 under the World Bank-aided Social Forestry Project of the state government then. 

The project aimed to “generate paid employment for the rural poor and improve environmental conditions” through plantations that provide fuelwood, small timber, etc. 

The trees originated in North America but came to be known locally as Russi Frass (Russian poplar). In a matter of years, they became an important part of the landscape in Kashmir.

The species takes far less time (8-9 years) to grow than the Kashmir poplar, which grows over decades. This made them extremely popular among local farmers, who subsequently began to plant the trees on their own.

Experts now believe that the total population of Russian poplars in the state might be around 1.6 crore. 

However, pollen from the trees is known to cause allergies around Kashmir. While the males of the tree species do not produce pollen, the females do, in the month of April. 

“The government has this apprehension that the pollen can become a source for the Covid-19 virus,” said Mehrajudin Malik, the regional director of the J&K social forestry department that has 43,000 male Russian poplars in its nursery at the moment.

Experts say the tree’s perception as a public health hazard is exaggerated, claiming that it causes allergies in much fewer people than is believed, but the Jammu & Kashmir High Court has, on multiple occasions, ordered that they be felled or trimmed. Following a 2015 order in this regard, lakhs of poplar trees were felled across Kashmir. 

However, counter petitions and protests have stopped the authorities from wiping out the entire species. 

“There are court directions and the process of cutting down trees has been ongoing … But now the court orders will be followed strictly so that the trees don’t become the source of Covid-19,” Malik said.

He added the department had not planted female poplars for the past 5-6 years, and those present in the government nursery were being auctioned. Last year, 200 were auctioned, Malik said. 

Asked about the criticism from experts, Malik claimed the department was not completely felling the trees but only “lopping them”, or trimming their branches.

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Govt order vs govt press release

There, however, appears to be some confusion about whether the order calls for axing trees entirely or just trimming the branches.

The order issued by the Jammu & Kashmir government, a copy of which has been accessed by ThePrint, cites the 2015 high court ruling and asks district administrations to carry out “lopping/felling down of” the trees on a war footing “as it may prove fatal to the public health”.

The order states the pollen may cause “influenza/respiratory tract-like infections”, which could hamper efforts to prevent Covid-19. The order also asks the general public to trim the poplars on their private property, warning them that the trees would be felled if they didn’t comply.

However, press statements issued by the J&K department of information and public relations last week quotes multiple deputy commissioners, including those for Pulwama and Kulgam, as ordering the “axing of (female) Russian poplars”. The word “lopping” is missing from these press statements altogether.

The press release for Pulwama states that the “influenza-like infections” caused by the pollen “may create unnecessary panic among the general public amid Covid-19 pandemic”, while the one for Kulgam labels the trees a “health hazard” too.

Approached for comment, the divisional commissioner for Kashmir, Pandurang Kondbarao Pole, insisted that their order called for trimming and “felling only when necessary”.

“There’s prima facie evidence to show the trees cause allergies … how much percentage of the allergies are caused by these trees, only studies can determine it. Right now, we don’t have that much time to find out which tree causes what amount of allergy,” he added.

“The lockdown is until 14 April … It is the third and fourth week of this month that the pollen is generated, so we have given an order to lop off the branches that grow at a height of 30 feet or above.”

“We have ordered lopping and, if there is need, then cutting. The felling order might have been issued by district magistrates,” Pole said.

ThePrint approached Pulwama district commissioner Raghav Langar for comment but he did not respond to calls. The district commissioners for Kulgam, Showkat Aijaz, said they would cut trees only if necessary.

“We, too, have given orders for lopping … only if it doesn’t work out will the trees be cut,” said Aijaz.

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Experts divided

Experts in Kashmir seem to be divided on the subject. 

Some support the government move and say it should not take any chances in light of the severity of the pandemic. Others, however, have warned that deforestation to this extent might be an ecological disaster, as well as cause significant economic blowback.

“Almost all conifers contribute to allergies among humans. The Russian poplar is not as big a cause as other conifers such as pine, Chinar trees … Does that mean we cut down all trees?” said Dr J.A. Mugloo, a senior scientist at the Faculty of Forestry, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir.

“All we need to do is remove 60 per cent of its canopy and the trees will not produce the pollen, which is essentially unfertilised seed. The trees need to be managed, not cut,” he added, saying any “resource that is not managed becomes a problem for any country”.  

Mugloo said the “trees reduce carbon in the atmosphere … and are the backbone of our farmers in the apple industry.” Wood from the tree helps make the crates in which apples are transported.

“The wood serves as value addition for fruit packaging. It is used as timber, construction and helps decrease pressure on forests, thus averting deforestation,” he added.

Mugloo said the trees helped the rural economy throughout the year.

“Can’t we bear them for 20 days, during which the pollen is generated? I request the government to take back its decision and conduct studies to find out whether the trees have any connection to Covid-19,” he said. 

Environmental expert Shakil Romshoo, however, claimed a “recent study” had suggested coronavirus could “spread through air if it finds a substrate like dust, black carbon or pollen”.

“For example, if an infected person coughs and the pollen comes in contact (with the droplets), they can act as carriers for the virus,” he said.

The decision has also drawn severe criticism from politicians, with Imran Dar of the National Conference describing the poplars as the backbone of several key industries in Kashmir, including plywood as well as fruits. 

CPI(M) J&K Secretary Ghulam Nabi Mali described the government decision as hasty and unscientific, and said the move would result in economic and ecological disaster.

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Andhra doctor, suspended for alleging PPE shortage, now beaten by cops for ‘creating nuisance’




doctor with a stethoscope
A doctor with a stethoscope (Representative image) | Pixabay

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Bengaluru: A doctor with a government hospital in Andhra Pradesh, who was suspended for questioning the shortage of PPE kits, was admitted to a mental health facility Sunday, a day after he was allegedly manhandled by the police and arrested for creating nuisance in Visakhapatnam.

Dr Sudhakar Rao, a government civil surgeon, was beaten, his hands tied behind his back and dragged by police officers Sunday. During the incident, Sudhakar allegedly verbally abused the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in an inebriated state. Videos of the incident have since been widely shared online.

“The police control room received a call about a person creating nuisance on Beach Road Hospital in Visakhapatnam. The Fourth Town police was rushed there and found that the person was the suspended doctor, Sudhakar.

“When the police tried to control him, he snatched the mobile phone of an officer and threw it away. He is suffering from mental disorder and he was drunk. He was sent for a medical examination,” Vishakapatnam Police Commissioner R.K. Meena told the media Sunday.

Sudhakar was admitted to a mental hospital Sunday after doctors at the King George Hospital in Vishakapatnam said he suffered from anxiety.

“Since the doctor is in anxiety and talking irrelevant things, I have referred him to a mental care hospital in Visakhapatnam,” said Dr Radha Rani, medical superintendent, King George Hospital.

A statement released by the hospital said: “Dr Sudhakar was brought to the KGH casualty ward at 6.30 pm. From the smell, it was found that he was in a drunk condition. Under the influence of alcohol, he did not cooperate with anybody there and kept abusing all. Still, his pulse, BP were checked. Pulse was 98, BP 140/100. Blood samples were sent to forensic lab to ascertain alcohol content in his blood.”

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‘Treatment towards Sudhakar was inhuman’

Sudhakar, who spent more than 10 years at the Narsipatnam Government Hospital in Andhra Pradesh, was suspended from his duties in March after he openly criticised the Reddy government for failing to provide PPE kits and N95 masks to doctors treating Covid-19 patients.

He had alleged that the state government was giving N95 masks and PPE kits meant for doctors to politicians and the police.

A video of Sudhakar criticising the government was also shared widely. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “We are putting our lives at risk here. We are asked to use the same mask for 15 days and a fresh mask will be provided only twice a month.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr P. Gangadhar Rao, member of the National COVID Committee of the Indian Medical Association, said the manner in which Sudhakar was manhandled by the police was “inhuman” and “violated” human rights.

“We strongly condemn the way he was taken into custody. He was not carrying a weapon, he was alone, the number of policemen outnumbered him. Why treat him like that? We also saw a video where a policeman beats him with a lathi,” said Dr Gangadhar.

He added that Rao was one of the most experienced anaesthetists the Andhra Pradesh government had.

“Our next step of action is to get Sudhakar to write an unconditional apology for having used filthy language, abusing the chief minister and the government. We will then take our appeal to the CM seeking that he be reinstated,” Gangadhar said.

Also read: Face shields, gowns, masks — the new attire for cabin crew post lockdown

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