Over the next two months, N Prabhu of Chennai’s Madras Christian College will have to keep track of whether one of his students is actually spending at least 100 hours to promote cleanliness in a village in Mizoram. Across the country in Delhi, M Fahim Ansari, a physics teacher at Zakir Hussain College, will have faced a similar challenge trying to monitor one student in Manipur and another in Tripura.

These students have signed up for the Swachh Bharat Summer Internship, a programme devised by the Ministry of Human Resource Development as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Campaign. Their work will be coordinated mostly by college or university teachers like Prabhu and Ansari who have been designated as nodal officers for the programme. The deadline for registration is June 15.

Though programmes such as the National Service Scheme have been involving students in voluntary social work for nearly five decades now, the Swachh Bharat Summer Internship carries greater weight. In March, the higher education regulator University Grants Commission agreed to award academic credits for students who completed the internship, making participation in it equivalent to studying for an optional paper during regular coursework.

However, for a programme that is so important, there is much that colleges are not clear about. For one, since the students can pick villages close to where they live but register where they study, it is up to the nodal officers to figure out how to monitor progress in distant places and verify an intern’s claims.

Then there is the scarcity of funds to contend with, at least for public colleges and universities. Officials from state universities said they cannot run the internship – even offer basic facilities such as transport and refreshment to their students – without government support.

But what the officials are most confused about is the awarding of academic credits. Nobody is sure how the 100 hours of work is to be translated into marks and grades. Some teachers are arguing that the internship should not be linked to regular academic work at all.

In the middle of exams and holidays

When the programme was opened, colleges and universities struggled to get registrations going. The guidelines on the minimum requirements and the nature of activities to be conducted were issued on April 20 and registration opened on May 1 – in the middle of term exams or summer vacations at most institutions. In fact, even nodal officers had to be prodded to register on the programme’s website. Osmania University’s nodal officer Chelmala Srinivasalu said almost 90% of the nodal officers at colleges affiliated to the university “did not respond” to his request to register.

“The registration period coincided with our exam schedule and both students and faculty were focussed on that,” said Srinivasalu. “We could not get the kind of response we would have liked.”

Osmania University oversees some 720 affiliated colleges with over 3.25 lakh undergraduates. Only about 800 students signed up.

C Madhavaiah, nodal officer for Pondicherry University’s Karaikal campus said they put up notices and standees “everywhere on campus” to announce the internship “but there was no one to see them”. Almost all the 250 people who study on the campus had left for summer project work by the end of April. They will be back only in the last week of June, by which time registration for the internship will be closed.

Delhi University’s colleges are facing problems too. At Hindu College, nearly 60 students have registered so far, said nodal oficer Manoj Varshney. The interns will start work once registration closes on June 15. But this means they will lose out on regular classwork, which begins on July 20, ten days before the internship is supposed to end.

At Madras Christian College, at least 67 students have signed up and most are working in the two Kanchipuram villages. “We go nearly every day and put up posters, perform street plays and organise games to raise awareness about hand washing, waste management and open defecation,” said Prabhu.

The college advertised the internship on its website, selected villages close by, and formed a team of five teachers to help the students. But despite all the preparations, Prabhu said, they found it difficult to register students because of the holidays.

Need for government support

The April 20 guidelines instructed colleges and universities to help their students participating in the programme with transport and logistics, but university officials said they do not have the money to do so.

Madras Christian College has spent about Rs 67,000 so far on refreshments and some work activities – such as buying bars of soap to give away as prizes for a hand-washing game. But government support is needed for conducting the full range of activities. The students plan to help construct toilets for 20 families but have no money. “We are writing to non-governmental organisations for sponsorships,” said Prabhu. His students are making their own way to the villages using public transport while the teachers travel on their own motorcycles or autorickshaws.

But where the selected villages are far from campus, colleges and universities are yet to figure out how to pay for students’ transport and accomodation.

“We need to start thinking practically about this,” said Srinivasalu of Osmania University. “If interns live in those villages, they will need the support of the local officials. They should be reimbursed for board and lodging and transport. It is possible to work out the daily cost and allocate that sum per student to the nodal officer. If we have even 100 interns, we have to start thinking in these terms.” He noted the the “biggest problem” with the programme is that the university is expected to foot the bill. “But the university does not have any funding provision for this,” he added.

This is forcing students to curtail their ambitions for the project. For instance, a group of three female students from Zakir Hussain College wants to start an awareness drive about waste segregation in a semi-urban locality near Vasant Vihar in South Delhi. But Ansari, the college’s nodal officer, has suggested they be as thrifty as possible, and prepare a play and a theme-song. They also want to paint some walls but Ansari has asked them to hold off till he knows who will pay for it. His students working in villages near their homes in Tripura and Manipur asked about building toilets. Again, Ansari told them to ask the local panchayats if they would be willing to give them “some small amount” to design a prototype.

When Ansari suggested that his student from Tripura should cycle to his selected village, he was told the village is about 50 km from where he lives. “If the government had assigned villages and given us clear instructions about what needs to be done and funds, this could be a workable project,” Ansari said. “Students are passionate about it but there is no clarity about a lot of things.”

Problems of monitoring and awarding credit

In addition, there is no clarity about how work done during the internship will translate into academic credits either.

Academic credits, unlike the conventional system of exams and marks, denote the time spent on a certain part of an academic programme. In Delhi University, for instance, 60 lectures of physics translate into four credits while the same number of practical classes fetch two credits. A total of 140 credits, including for elective papers and skill-enhancement courses, are required for an honours degree in physics.

But college teachers in Delhi and Chennai said they have not been told whether the two credits for the internship will be in addition to the course work that the students are already doing, or whether they can replace other papers. Srinivasalu said the Telangana State Council for Higher Education allows for extra credits for co-curricular activities and taking skill-based courses – in addition to the minimum 140, that is – but the others are not sure. They are also not clear about whether the students are to be marked on their work – they are for all other academic work – and whether it would reflect in their final cumulative grade.

This is further complicated by the fact that the nodal officers are not required to accompany the students to the villages. Monitoring their work and verifying if they are putting in the hours is a challenge, especially in the case students who are working far away.

Madras Christian College has some students in Udhagamandalam, 500 km away, and one in Mizoram. Verifying claims about their work is a problem, Prabhu said. The students have been told to “link up with the nearest panchayat” and once the 100 hours are up, come back with all evidence and documents. “We will get in touch with the panchayat too and cross-check,” said Prabhu. They have also created a messaging group through which the interns are expected to keep their handlers updated about their daily activities.

Hindu College, which will have students working in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, has a similar group, said Varshney. “We were worried about monitoring,” he said. “We have also opened a [blog] and the interns will have to write a post detailing their activities on a daily basis.”

In Telangana, however, the state government’s Swacch Bharat Mission office is lending a helping hand. “Once the interns join, they have to report to the government officers at the mandal level and they will supervise and approve their work after which credit can be granted,” said Srinivasalu.