The Jammu & Kashmir High Court on 10th April 2020 stayed the cutting of poplar trees in the Union Territory and directed the Chief Secretary of J&K to constitute a high-level committee to study whether these trees are the cause of multiple diseases for people.
With the surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in Kashmir and the resulting fear psychosis in the general population, the government of the Union territory is forcing growers of a common poplar tree species known locally as “Russi” to cut them to prevent allergies in the spring season.
On April 3, the administration in the Kashmir Valley ordered the felling of female Populus deltoids, locally known as Russian poplars, within a week. The court observed that the “trees which are proving dangerous and a threat to the healthy life can be categorized as being a public nuisance.” If the “general public” failed to cut down the trees on their property within six days, the district administration would oblige. Trees in the state or forest land would have to be felled by the social forestry department or other district level officers. The reason behind this was the spread of the coronavirus [COVID-19] in Kashmir. The “pollen of said trees,” said one government order, “create influenza-like infections which may create unnecessary panic among the general public”.
Following that, the J&K administration ordered lopping/felling of the trees in both privately-owned and government land. The government first ordered that the branches of the poplars be trimmed but subsequent press releases from various district administrations stated that authorities had been asked to “axe” the trees.
“Pollen of poplar trees remains in the air for between 25 to 30 days and create havoc for humans with respiratory diseases. It [the pollen] has the potential to hold the COVID-19 virus and result in aggravation of the spread of the infection as well,” lawyer Shafqat Nazir said in a public interest litigation.
The HC issued a stay order until a committee submits its report. The committee is supposed to be constituted within four days.
The court also directed Chief Secretary BVR Subramanyam to set-up a committee headed by Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and other experts on trees, medicine, respiratory diseases and other subjects relevant to the issues.
The reference to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has left medical experts bewildered as there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that pollen can transmit the virus. However, there has been no scientific study that shows the cotton-like substance from these trees causes allergies. Its pollen does, as does the pollen from other trees, but then why single out just this species, question experts.
The government’s order threatens to upend the livelihood of thousands of people dependent on these trees and experts warn that any mass felling will dwindle the Valley’s green cover and have a devastating effect on the environment.
The female trees of the species shed a cotton-like substance which is mistakenly perceived as an allergen.
In a 2015 order, the Jammu and Kashmir high court had noted,
“It is a common knowledge that pollen seed of poplars is adversely affecting the health of the 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 court further observed that the “health of the general public is of paramount importance than the interest of individuals who plant poplar trees”.
In its order dated 10th April 2020, the high court clarified that it had passed no direction regarding the felling of trees on 3 April.
“We make it clear that in our order dated 3rd April 2020, we had left the decision and action to be taken by the secretary, Health and Medical Education and had passed no direction regarding the felling of the trees,” the court said.
“We were informed on 3rd April 2020, by Mr. Shafqat Nazir, advocate, that there were previous court orders of 2015 concerning felling of poplars. If this is the position, we today direct that any prior order directing felling of the poplar trees would be kept in abeyance till the above proceedings of the Committee and consideration directed today are completed, placed before us and further orders passed by us,” the order further stated.
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