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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Living under the shadows of death

Due to the untidy and environmentally-unfriendly nature of mechanic villages – they are said to arbitrarily dispose discarded auto parts and waste oil – the authorities feel they deface the cityscape. But the idea of gathering automobile servicing technicians at specified locations has considerably contributed to the eradication of roadside practice.

In the 1980s, Oladipo Diya, then Governor of Ogun State, relocated mechanic villages within the Abeokuta metropolis. Similarly in Lagos, Governor Lateef Jakande allocated plots of land to the technicians within newly established mechanic villages at various locations in the state.

A few years ago, the Lagos State Government committed to establishing a Mechanic Village Environmental Management Committee towards ensuring that the existing villages are more meaningful, functional and effective. Government is likewise weighing the option of establishing more of such facilities.

Some of the mechanics at Ogba in Ikeja complain of the activities of land speculators, who they fear want to grab the land that was allocated to them and upon which they have been paying ground rent. The mechanics operate under the aegis of the Nigeria Automobile Technician Association (NATA).

Perhaps this development spurred some NATA members at the sprawling mechanic village located under high-tension power lines by the Low Cost Housing Estate (LCHE) at Oke-Afa, Isolo in Lagos, to take their destiny into their own hands. Overnight, they dumped their work overalls and became realtors.

A land allottee started by converting frontages and setbacks of his plot into shops. While some went further to sell the land, others chose the option of transforming theirs into dwelling units. A typical plot in the Oke-Afa mechanic village now features three different land uses: auto work, residential and commercial. Some even feature nursery and primary schools.

The rooms, measuring about three metres by three metres, are usually built against the fence. In most cases lacking cross ventilation, the home features an entrance door and a window. A makeshift, usually unroofed structure, serves as the bathroom and toilet.

A “landlord” begins with one or two rooms and gradually expands. Some units are designed as self-contained apartments. Some developers have built multi-storey residential – and fully occupied – structures on lands purchased from the mechanics.

One of the technicians fear that the development is threatening their source of livelihood as available space to practice the profession is shrinking. He says the trend started several years ago and intensified chiefly because the act is being perpetrated by senior colleagues who, ironically, were supposed to oppose it.

He attributes the spate of conversion to the fact that allocation per plot in the village was done individually and not to a team (a mechanic, panel beater, electrician and blacksmith), such that no one has the sole right over the parcel of land. But the reverse is the case and, contrary to regulations, the mechanics have resorted to erecting permanent structures on the land, even in the face of complaints by government.

According to an official of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), even though there is a guideline that stipulates that people should not erect any structure over a certain distance from power lines, they have refused to comply.

His words: “It is not our job to drive people away from under the lines. Whoever is giving them approval should please put a halt to it. If we erect lines where structures already exist, we pay the owners, but most people build illegally after we erect our lines. They have told us that state and local government officials do come to collect different forms of levy from them.”

A source close to the Lagos Physical Planning & Urban Development Ministry stresses that government only granted approval for citing of mechanic villages and horticultural gardens under high-tension power installations, but that permanent structures are not supposed to be there.

An occupier of one of such units discloses that whenever it rains, he perceives vibrations of electrical current passing through the wires. He admits he is aware of the danger involved in residing underneath the power lines, but that he has resorted to faith.

But experts have warned that people who live under or close to high voltage power lines risk health hazard as the radiation emanating from the facility is potentially carcinogenic, that is having the ability to induce the growth of cancerous cells.

A study conducted by the University of Lagos indicates that persons living in such locations may end up with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia or other forms of cancer because of constant high level exposure to power frequency field or power radiation.

“With about 33,000 volts of electric current flowing through high tension wire, a large electric current – a large electric field is created in the vicinity. If any electric conductor, such as iron rod, metal or wet bamboo is brought within the electric field, it will result in current flow due to difference in potential,” says an electrical engineer.

PHCN, state government and local council officials need to urgently take up the matter and take appropriate steps to effect a turnaround.

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