It isn’t often that we have a British scientist on the run whose heart goes beyond the bumpy Indian roads. When we do, it results in a discovery of archaeological marvels, lighting up remote dark villages and bringing double watt electric smiles on the faces of the villagers and folks of the subcontinent.
Meet Philip Earis- a British scientist and a resident of Mumbai for the last 3 years. Mr. Earis, took it upon himself to give back to the society with his noble deeds which have managed to leave imprints on our minds forever. While his soaring strides spoke miles, his nobility evoked smiles befitting the Gentleman that he is.
I met Philip for the first time during the monthly run of MRR sometime in September 2015. A courteous polite and friendly person that he was, I was amazed at his speed and agility as a runner. I began to follow him more on social media and his deeds left me awestruck. As I met this warm individual time and again, my respect only grew double fold. As I met him at his plush Bandra apartment, along with his angelic 7 month old daughter, my conversation with him left me humbled while I heard Philip speak about his thoughtful and marvellous work, experience of running in India and the learnings that he takes back with him as he leaves for the United Kingdom in the month of June, 2016.
Read on my interview with Philip Earis…
- So Philip, tell us more about what brought you to India and how has your experience of residing in the sub-continent been for the last 3 years?
Well I was working in the field of scientific publishing which enabled me to form extensive networks with scientists from all over the world. I saw that India was becoming an increasingly important market in the field of science and thereby saw immense opportunity here. In the meantime my wife who works for Pricewaterhouse Coopers Pvt Ltd (PWC) saw an opportunity in India as well since her company was looking for someone to set up a team in India. Since both of us could make it work, we decided to relocate to India for 3 years.
It was relatively easier for her as she came here initially on a two year contract which eventually became a three year one. For me it was a little bit more complicated considering I was essentially doing the same role which involved extensive travelling back and forth in the first year. I realized that I was unable to make the most of the opportunity presented and hence quit my corporate job. I decided to make use of my networks, experiences and skills to be involved in looking at solutions to address some of the challenges present in India. There were also a lot of wonderful scientists in India who had some good ideas about technology which could help in addressing some of the issues and it’s been a pleasure working with them. It’s all thanks to my wife that I have been able to concentrate on what I really wanted to do.
It has been a wonderful stay in India for the last 3 years. We got to see different regions, cultures and subcultures, interacted with different kinds of people which made it an incredible experience. I also feel there are some misconceptions about India. You see I am from Cambridge which is the safest place in UK. But I felt safer walking in the streets of Mumbai at night as it was always bustling with people and life. I personally found the people in India warm, hospitable, happy to engage in a conversation and make you a part of their lives.
- You have been part of remarkable projects like the stepwells and the lighting program. Could you tell us more about it and what prompted you to take up such initiatives?
Well any country is bound to have challenges and India especially with its disparities has more acute challenges than its counterparts. There are issues with sanitation, education, etc. but there is also a lot of good work going on to address these challenges. As an outsider, I didn’t want to tread on any of these or get into the way of good initiatives that were already being implemented. All I wanted was to contribute to areas which have probably been missed inadvertently, by using my knowledge & skills and make a meaningful difference.
For instance the Government of India and NGOs think a lot about electrifying villages. However there is a possibility that some marginalised communities like tribal villages were overlooked in the process. So I wanted to help such communities. Stepwells again is an engineering marvel and a unique historical structure. However they are ignored as they fall out of the radar and in the process get filled with thrash. Like they say, when it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. I am hoping that modern technology can help in creating awareness about such marvels and that’s what we are trying to do.
I have also been trying to address sanitation and energy issues for certain communities hidden in the centre of cities like even Mumbai. For instance take the Koli water fishing village in Worli. So many people drive by the sea link but don’t realize that the original inhabitants of Mumbai live there. The people in this village face sanitation issues as a lot of plastic waste gets washed out from the sea which doesn’t make it a conducive environment to live in. So we are trying to bring in some Scientists from Gujarat to see if plastic waste can be turned into bio-diesel which can power the boats that these folks use for their livelihood. Now that will save money from buying diesel and also provide a good excuse for these people to collect plastic waste. So this is one such example of how a fresh pair of eyes from outside can open up a new possibility.
- You have discovered around 500 stepwells in our country, something that was lost and forgotten by Indians. Do you see this as a saviour to the Indian problem of drought that we are facing today?
Drought is an acute problem in India and it’s more so especially in the last few years. People are tapping in ground water more and more and in the process the ground water levels are diminishing gradually. Stepwells I would say is more of a localised solution and sometimes localised solution is what is needed in India. Stepwells have an important role to play and they were built for a functional role. Therefore they deserve to be preserved in their own right.
- You were also instrumental in making Valap-a village about 48 km from Mumbai city, see daylight literally by installing solar lights which has changed their lives for the better. How do you see the future of Solar power in India?
The future of Solar power looks bright in India. I want to say that not providing electricity can result in semi interconnected problems. For instance students being unable to study because of the dark can become an educational disadvantage. Adults being unable to work after dark can make the economic disadvantage situation more precarious. We also have to consider how people are burning kerosene for light making it an expensive prospect for them as they do not have the sufficient resources. It also creates thermal pollution which can result in health hazards and it possesses the risk of having their houses burnt down as its combustible.
Therefore Solar energy plays a vital role in addressing all these issues. Its clean and currently solar power is cheaper than coal. Besides India has a big advantage of having abundant sunlight and with the Indian authorities being wise enough to focus on this, I see Solar power really taking off in a few years. There are still many villages and people deprived of electricity and I hope to see Solar power helping these villages see daylight.
With regards to Valap, I want to take this opportunity to say that I am very grateful to Mumbai Road runners (MRR)- a wonderful running community that I am part of in Mumbai who were instrumental in funding these Solar lights for this village.
- Were you also partly involved in the coastal road project in Mumbai?
Well yes. In the sense I have been temporarily involved in the case of studying promenades. You see Mumbai is massively lacking in open spaces and therefore I have been collaborating with the observatory research aspect of this. We have done lots of work in mapping and identifying opportunities to join these promenades together to create more open spaces. For instance in Bandra, there is one in Bandstand and one in reclamation which have not been joined together. So a small work could result in a continuous and a much better facility with lots of advantages.
Now what we have been doing is trying to incorporate the work that we have been doing to positively influence the design parameters of the coastal road. To be pragmatic, it makes sense to try and get the best result for the people living in Mumbai city. This is an initiative to create more open spaces and bring some open spaces together. It is especially a good opportunity for runners especially in a city where the running culture is huge.
- Now Philip, speaking of running, one also hears that you are an incredible runner. So how and when did you take up running? How did it impact you as a person?
Well I wasn’t very sporty to begin with back in my school days. It was only during the mid-20s that made me take up running in a pursuit for a healthy lifestyle. The beauty part of running is that you could either run by yourself or in a group, any time at your convenience. There are no special arrangements required and it’s a sport which just requires a pair of running shorts, running shoes, a tee and you are ready to hit the roads.
I have been running for about 6-7 years now. Being a competitive and focused person that I always was, running helped me satiate these goals. I found this as an opportunity to push and stretch myself beyond limits. Besides I also appreciate good food and since this sport facilitates a healthy lifestyle it makes you feel less guilty about rewarding yourself with a piece of cake post a good run.
- Being in India would have prompted you to run on different terrains of the Indian landscapes. Which marathons and routes have you really enjoyed running and which of these would you recommend to your friends back in the UK as a must-do race?
Well there have been so many. India’s tropical landscapes are so diverse that it’s wonderful to be running in different parts of the country. Among the races, I would highly rate the Ladakh marathon as it gives you the wonderful experience of running amidst the mountains and also the taste of the unique culture of Ladakh. In fact this one was memorable as I signed up for it impromptu just 18 hours after I landed. It wasn’t exactly the most advisable thing to do as you need to acclimatise to the conditions first. It was a personal worst but the experience of running amidst the beautiful landscapes was unforgettable.
I also enjoyed the Satara Hill Marathon, partly as you are out of the big city and get to enjoy the countryside. You also get the essence of the Marathi culture. You see the fort of Sivaji Maharaj and people blowing trumpets which adds to the entire charm. This is one race where you go 10.5 km uphill and return 10.5 km downhill. The beauty part is you get to see the fastest African runners sprinting downhill while you are climbing up. Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) is also quite lively and resembles a carnival. I also enjoyed BNP Endurathon in Mumbai as you get an opportunity to run amidst the hills and greenery within the city itself. I also liked the Zendurance Nashik Spirit run which was my first half marathon in India. It was a sheer joy running amidst the clean air and the countryside in Nashik which is about 3 and a half hour drive from Mumbai.
- You have been a part of the biggest running community in India- Mumbai road runners (MRR). How did you initially hear about MRR? What has been your experience with MRR and the learnings that you take back with you from the family of runners?
I was introduced to MRR by one of my friends Andrea who used to run with them. My first run with them was sometime in 2014. It’s been a real joy being associated with this running community. There is so much of positivity and many inspiring stories which are commendable. It’s amazing to see and hear people juggling families and careers to make time for running. I have learnt how running can make a huge difference to people’s lives. You have a range of speeds here where some people want to achieve their personal best while others just want to make it to the finish line. Yet MRR brings that cohesiveness and spirit to accommodate, appreciate and accept everyone for who they are.
Running conditions are tough in India considering the heat, humidity, pollution and the busy roads. So it’s great to see people up in the wee hours of the morning for their runs. People in Europe will be astounded at the level of dedication and commitment here as the lean season for running begins when it hits 20 degrees there, while in India the coolest temperature is about 20 degrees. It’s good to see the running culture growing in India and also the increased level of female participation. One thing I would like to mention is that it will be good if we nurture more young talent and encourage people/kids from the slums to take to running. India has a population of 1.2 billion and if given the right infrastructure and encouragement, it can help in creating good athletes.
- Speaking of pollution, there has been an alarming rise of the same over the months. On one hand, runners are practising a healthy norm by running outdoors, at the same time, they are also inhaling pollutants making them susceptible to other ailments. How do you think such a dichotomy can be dealt with?
It’s a very good question yet a tough one to answer. The net benefits of running should ideally be positive. However the air pollution especially in Indian metro cities is rising at an alarming rate and tends to affect people in many ways. I feel runners should be the forefront of the movement to push for cleaner air and better facilities which makes them less exposed to pollution. If you want to have a positive change, make your voice heard. MRR being a community of 5000 plus members can be the focus point to articulate the needs and requirements of runners. What runners want also coincides with the needs of non-runners which is more open spaces and clean air.
Now if one considers what causes pollution, they can avoid certain things like burning rubbish in open spaces. I also feel that electric vehicles will have a role to play in the future. For instance if you consider the public transport, auto rickshaws are ideal to go electric as they have less load, lesser mileage and don’t require high speeds or much of acceleration. So there is an opportunity here, though it will certainly take time to address this issue.
- Lastly Philip, now that you go back to UK after a 3 year stint in India, what are your expectations? Do you think your noble contribution can help take India forward with regards to solving some of the crisis? Any plans of visiting India soon?
Well yeah there is a lot to be optimistic about. I can see how much India has changed over the last three years. A small example would be the transition from the black and yellow Taxis to Ubers, Olas and Meru cabs. I just hope that people in India don’t lose sight of some of the wonderful things especially from the heritage perspective. Once something is lost and forgotten, it’s difficult to retrieve it back. So I do wish that the running community along with the others take up the responsibility of maintaining some of the good things here which can certainly take India forward in the long run. And yes I would certainly love to be back and visit India again, though I am not sure how soon it would be.